Heneral

By Estrella Taño Golingay
Fiction

The neighborhood would usually start to stir up to the insistent crowing of the roosters. As clumps of leaves gradually appeared against the sky, household sounds would signal the daily routine of chores. Then the lowing of herds would enliven the farm road, creating an urgency for those who had different deadlines to meet.

“Get up, Budz!” Nanay called from the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. “Gather taro or Tope would get them first!” I could almost see her puttering around, her voice rising above the early morning din as she requested Tatay to fetch some water. “After that, dry again the rice you just harvested, so you can have it milled after.” Tatay was feeding the fowls outside, and maybe he could hear my mother, but I didn’t hear him reply.

The noise in the kitchen and the fowls dominated the early morning scene. Those sounds had filled my mornings since I was a little boy, and I had grown accustomed to that kind of music. Outside the half-opened window, I could still make out the silhouettes of the durian and mango trees as the sun was about to come out of Roxas Mountains. Still I sat there on the mat, my back against the hardness of the kalakat wall, trying to ward off sleep. I stretched out and shifted my legs to stand up reluctantly, and the bamboo floor creaked as I wobbled on my feet. I headed slowly to the kitchen, fearing the chronic morning speeches.

Then I thought of Heneral and remembered clearly how he got that name. It had been four months since we had him, and being the only male and the eldest in a brood of three, I felt I was the instant owner. It was the same feeling when we got Pia as a birthday gift from a cousin last year.

“He’s mine, and I’ll call him Heneral!” I had proudly declared, to which no one had objected.

“We can’t afford hog feeds,” Nanay reminded me. “You know that. So as usual, we have to make do with wild veggies, kitchen leftovers, and refined chaff from the nearby rice mill.” That meant I’d look for taro leaves along the irrigation canals and swampy nooks, and then cook the leaves in a large vat so that the hog could be fed in the mornings and in the afternoons when I arrived home from school.

“Been doing that, Nay,” I jestingly added.

Abaw! hambog ba,” she jokingly said. “In exchange for what, may I know?”

“He-he-he, you know what I mean, Nay!” Then I remembered that for a month or two more, Heneral would have to go.

That morning was unusually arid, and the fields were dry and cracked like old skin with open sores. The feeder canal, too, had been almost empty for a month now. There were still clumps around, but the leaves had shrunk because of lack of rain. However, there was a large variety of taro grown domestically in backyards with large leaves and edible roots they called palawan, but those, too, had been reduced to stumps. Fortunately, with Pia to accompany me, I was able to gather some for Heneral’s fodder by taking the extra kilometer walk towards Kusan, sauntering along the irrigation canal with the hope of finding some of those much-coveted leaves.

But the best part of the hunt was to stand with my cousin on the highest hump by the canal. We’d squawk our hearts out at the feeding egrets, and they would scamper away to the sky and back while the sun slowly claimed the landscape. I had always loved the sight of those great white birds with their wide wings spread over the fields. That early morning ritual would usually end with a waft of breeze carrying the scents of young rice plants and loamy mud ready for planting. I recalled having done this with my cousins since I was little, as I used to accompany Nanay when she joined rice planters at the onset of rainy season. Just standing there, I felt the sky wasn’t so far then.

I found the chopping board hewn from an old kamatsili tree and started to cut the taro stems into two-inch or three-inch pieces and the leaves into shreds. The pieces fell unto an old sack that I had put under the chopping board. I was able to finish a sackful, which already filled the old lead vat my mother had received from my lola as an heirloom. That vat had been a constant fixture in the backyard as Mother never ran out of hogs to feed to make ends meet. Seeing it meant there was something to expect. In my mind, taking care of Heneral might give me what I’d been asking for: a new basketball to replace the lost one and a used cell phone maybe, which she had promised lately if I got better grades. But as usual Tatay wouldn’t budge.

He said, “We need a new scythe this weekend and a new bicycle tire to replace the broken one.” His words sounded final and curt, so I just sat there not saying anything, feeling the hardness of the bamboo bench secured under a guava tree. I always took Father’s words like they’re spoken by a chief, but in the end, he gave in a little as he quipped, “Join me in harvesting rice at your Uncle Umeng’s, and you’ll get what you’re asking for.”

His pacifying tone somehow made me relax.

“We have to join more harvests as those maybe our last.” Tatay’s voice quivered a little, and I saw him looking sad when I turned to look at him.

“Besides, there’s no more ulon-ulon to gather,” Nanay suddenly butted in as she folded our newly laundered clothing. “The huge harvesters have taken over the rice farms and everything goes in.”

Then I remembered the rice field my father had maintained in Dajay. He’d usually get several sacks from there, and that had been a great help for our consumption. But the previous July, it was infested by black bugs and rats, and there was the perennial maya bungol, always ready to swoop down on the yellowing fields and beat the farmers to the grains. I still laughed at why they were called such. Father had said that no matter how hard they were driven away, they would always come back.

Those mornings and weekends last July were the most memorable ones as we shooed the birds away with used cassette tapes tied at different directions of the field. The lines emitted blinding light when the sun rays struck the strips, and scared birds off. Sometimes, we would string empty tin cans across the field and shake the strings to create a resounding noise as I booed the loudest, driving them away. After that, I would let out a hearty laugh, but then, they’d come back, and I’d get tired doing that again and again, and it wasn’t fun anymore.

“I don’t think there’s much to expect from the coming harvest in Dajay, either,” Tatay said. “You saw what happened there.” He had a faraway look.

“Yes, Tatay,” I said softly, trying hard not to appear sad knowing it was something that happened to all rice planters as my mother said.

Hay, the Lord knows what we need,” Nanay said, sighing. “Let’s just be thankful for what we are given.” She would usually seal our fate with that mantra every time the harvest season failed.

But I got my red basketball nevertheless, after a day and a half of absence from school. The cell phone had to wait until next harvest time or when the hog was traded. So that day, I saw to it that fire was enough for the forage before I left, and with one last glimpse, I was off to school at the poblacion, almost four kilometers away from our village. But before I could even get out of the door, Father called my attention again and warned me earnestly. “Salvador, remember what we talked about.” Father’s index finger was pointing at me. “No late-night basketball games, especially with that cousin of yours!”

I could only nod in solemn reply while recalling the incident over a year ago. For two days, I was grounded for failing to be home after a basketball tournament at the poblacion. I never saw my father that angry before, and for the first time, I recoiled with fear at the fierceness of his eyes. I almost got a punch on my stomach had it not been for my mother coming between me and that fist of fury.

“That good-for-nothing son of yours,” Tatay said. “Look who was with him! You don’t even care whom he goes out with!”

Instantly, I felt brave for my mother, afraid he would hit her, and he wasn’t even tipsy, so I shielded her with my frail body, but he shoved me to the wall, so hard that I suffered some bruises. I didn’t see what happened next, but I heard her shouting, “Tama na!” which brought my two siblings to the scene, their cries adding to the commotion.

I learned my lesson the hard way. Looking back, I felt there was more shame than fear. But then eventually, Nanay knew about the online games and how I actually lost my money on betting. For that, I had to pay the price. But she didn’t know about the girl with curly hair and dimpled smile in the section next to ours and how I bought her stuffed toy at the ukay-ukay last fiesta.

That afternoon, after our dismissal at Libertad National High School, Tope came running to where I stood waiting for my siblings and whispered, “Come, it won’t take us long, just a game or two.”

“Computer shops are full by now,” I replied. “Besides, got no money.”

“It won’t take long, Budz,” Tope insisted. “I’ll pay for you. Just pay me back later.”

“How about Mira and Bebing?”

“You can just tell them you need a little time for your homework. And do you know that Odet now stays with her aunt?” Tope whispered something close to my ear and winked at me teasingly with a grin.

“Oh no, Topz. Not again. You’re always putting me in trouble.” I faked anger, shoving him off. I wasn’t sure, but I felt my whole body smiling on hearing that name.

“Hoy, Tope! Aren’t you coming home with us?” Mira shouted at Tope as she arrived with Bebing almost stooping with her backpack on. “Let’s go home, kuya. Stay away from that bum!”

“I’m hungry, kuya!” whined the little one as she darted to the nearest stall of native delicacies.

“Some other time maybe, Topz,” I finally decided. “Here comes the tricycle,” I said more to myself than to Tope as I assisted my siblings inside while I took the back ride.

Talawit!” Tope taunted me. “I’ll tell it all! Talawit! Talawit!” Tope sneered at me repeatedly at the top of his voice as we drove away. “Bring it on, Topz!” I laughingly shouted back, feeling braver this time to face any form of bullying. Soon the tricycle was struggling on the potholes towards home with twelve young passengers, four of which were enthroned on the rooftop.

Heneral stayed with us for two months more, and that meant same routine of gathering and preparing taro fodder. His squeaking may be earsplitting, but in time I had become accustomed to it and learned to like it being part of the usual sounds of home. Then I had that feeling my father liked me taking care of Heneral because I had something to do for the family.

My sisters and I enjoyed bathing Heneral when Nanay was too busy to do it. He liked being stroked at his underbelly and the gush of water on his back. Mira enjoyed the splash of water all over the pen, but one time, she tossed water nonchalantly upwards, and we got the share of the bath, so I complained loudly amidst her giggles and the snorting of the hog. “Mira, stop wasting water and help me clean the pen instead!” We had kept clean the hog’s pen, which was an open four-square-meter structure with four-foot buffer of split bamboo wall around. Any foul smell emanating from it would invite trouble from the neighboring households and a report to the barangay officials meant a warning. Keeping hogs for market somehow made us feel secure with the source of income just on hand.

“Next year, you’ll be in grade seven, and there’ll be more expenses to meet,” Nanay said seriously. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing school again, so I’d been trying to be good with my grades. I would also help my father as I promised especially during off-harvest season, which had usually been a lean season. Like these months, she had already spent the 4Ps allotment on food and other immediate needs. But one time, after claiming her share from Landbank, she surprised us with a fried chicken, and how we cheered her for that.

The impending sale of Heneral made us kids sad. My aunt was suddenly brought to the hospital the night before, and Nanay had to borrow money again for her. That meant she had another debt to pay, so she promised the hog as payment. But I thought that was better than betting the money again on number 88 that she had been maintaining. She said the number was given to her by a Chinese merchant, and it had always been a lucky number. But the last time she placed a bet and lost, my father was so mad, their argument ended with a broken window.

“We’ll get another one to replace him when he goes, don’t you worry,” she assured me, sensing my unusual silence. I remembered that it had happened before, so I just had to let go and wait.

“But how about the cell phone you promised, Nanay?” I asked softly. “Maybe we can get one from the store, just like Jopet’s.”

She didn’t answer.

“Go ask your auntie Rosie if she’s still selling her old one,” she said suddenly, surprising me a bit.

On second thought she quipped, “Oh, let me do that. It’s Sunday tomorrow, right? Rose usually reads at the Bible service.”

So one Saturday morning, the buyer arrived, riding an open motorbike-driven cart. In it were two helpers and an old weighing scale used for hogs.  Nong Domi, as they called him, had dark shades on, so I couldn’t make out what he really looked like. He entered the house premises towards the pig pen without the usual amenities. That surprised me because Nanay always told us never to enter people’s yards without greeting the owners first. The elders said that it’s like theft.

From the side window, I watched the old man instruct his helpers to tie the hog and snag it on the weighing scale, squinting as he arranged the lead weight. Soon after, he counted some money before giving it to my mother, who was quick to note the weight of her hog beforehand. Then quickly, he directed his helpers to load the shrieking animal on the cart. Seeing the squealing Heneral hogtied, I felt anger or sadness maybe, and I thought he must be asking for help. To my surprise, Nanay didn’t accept the money.

“Will you please count it on the table first before I take it?” she demanded, and this made the old man uncomfortable.

“What’s the point?” he asked. “Here’s the money in full. Don’t you want it?” He was resentful. Nevertheless, he counted the money again while my mother watched contemptuously.

“We agreed on ninety pesos per kilo before you came, and my hog weighs eighty-six!” she explained. “How come you counted five thousand less? Is there a mistake somewhere?” I almost forgot that my mother finished second year high school and was best in Mathematics in her class.

“But it’s already loaded!” Nong Domi defiantly declared as he tapped hard on the table in front of him, causing Pia to start barking. Soon, our street was a long blast of canine protest.

“Then put my hog back down!” Nanay suddenly raised her voice, stunning us all.

“I’m not selling it anymore, and there’s your money!” she added in a loud voice almost equal to his booming one. “I haven’t touched it!” she continued, her voice surprisingly clear and strong.

“It’s not good for business to take back a merchandise already loaded!” he yelled back, and the old man’s impatience started to attract attention from the neighbors. Anxiously then, I went out hurriedly on my mother’s side with my siblings tugging at my T-shirt.

“Kuya, kuya, wait!” Bebing fearfully pleaded as she and Mira held on to me.

“Stay away from him,” she murmured nervously while shaking my arm. But I just walked on, emboldened by a newly acquired courage thrust on eldest sons when placed on the spot, but stopped when I noticed something unusual. Nanay just stood there confidently commanding everyone’s attention. She looked calm but surprisingly fierce. That was a difficult spot for all of us, for I’d known my mother when she was sure and angry.

Suddenly, more people popped out of their doors, spilling into the street, and for the first time, I was extremely glad to have them as my neighbors. Then some male harvesters belonging to Father’s harvest group had come hoping for a glass of tuba. Times like those, they would usually talk about pressing  matters while waiting for their share, but at that time, Tatay hadn’t returned yet from Uncle Umeng’s store where he sold their harvested palay. Unexpectedly then, they became an audience to the farce thrust into them.

“I’m glad he isn’t here,” I whispered to myself, feeling relieved he wasn’t around to witness all those. Knowing Father, I was sure he wouldn’t take such an affront lightly. In that uneasy silence, everybody just gazed at the scene and waited for the next move of the old man as he fumbled for words to say. Finding none, he grudgingly completed the amount and threw the additional money on the table, cursing under his breath.

“There, you can have all of that and you can be rich!” He stomped out of the yard while my mother kept her composure with a glare she couldn’t hide. He then hurriedly mounted his motorbike, and off they went with a kick, a dark swirl of dust trailing behind as he dodged the street mongrels barking fiercely after them. Instinctively, everyone on the street just stood and insolently eyed the speeding vehicle. Then, as we were about to go back to the house, there was a heavy thud and the dust cleared.

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Nowhere Room

by Kristine Ong Muslim
Fiction

(This piece is from the out-of-print book, We Bury the Landscape: An Exhibition-Collection, published by Queen’s Ferry Press in 2012.) 

after Mike Worrall‘s The Never Ever Room (1998), oil on panel, 122 × 155 cm

Theophilus is wedged in the wooden floor of his temperature-regulated chamber called Childhood. Drawing moths during the summer, a 50-watt switch bulb dangles from the ceiling.

His mother says: ―You only fill one small room when you die so there’s no sense in occupying more while you are alive.

He nods, never talks back.

―A good parent can either teach you to forage or to be safe. I choose to keep you safe. Then she slams the door only to reappear at the end of the day with food.

Theophilus grows bigger, older. His limbs approximate those of a man’s. His senses of smell and hearing grow acute.

Outside, the schoolchildren taunt him, throw stones at the window, and leer at him—the pale-skinned boy anchored since birth to the floor of his room. Theophilus will not admit it, but he covets the schoolchildren‘s teeth, ruined by too much candy and soda. He admires their unruly hair, which smells of summertime. He loves to hear them call him ―ugly because it makes him feel unique and important.

Each day, the windows and doors shrink a little. In time, even his finger will not fit.

Picture

The Crying Walls of San Lorenzo

by Erwin Cabucos
Fiction

(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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

‘Rex?’

‘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.

Fireflies

By Adonis Hornoz
Fiction

Mutya was looking through the window of their house that cold Sunday evening when her sight was attracted by a glowing light. It was a yellow lighted insect flying smoothly in the air. She knew that this was an ipot-ipot, a firefly, which her parents often described to her as a bad spirit that led people to a kama-kama. Fireflies often appeared in the house’s backyard after a light rain every rainy season of June to October. Once they had lured a target, their intermittent light would lead the target to the dense area where no one was around and where the kama-kama was waiting. But because she wanted to explore that dark evening, Mutya went out of the house and caught some of the fireflies and later put them in a small glass jar.

The fireflies seemed to synchronize their glow with one another. And while Mutya’s eyes were filled with wonders of the insects, her mother noticed the glass jar she was holding.

“What is that, Mutya?” Doray asked. “You are not supposed to catch them.”

“Sorry, Mang, but they are so attractive. Besides, I didn’t see any kama-kama.”

Kama-kama were human-like creatures living mostly in anthills, thickets, and tall trees and had grotesque faces with long nails and beards. Mutya didn’t believe the old folk story. For her, it had just been created to scare children like her during nighttime.

“Set them free before your father sees them.”

Disappointed, Mutya opened the glass jar, and one by one, the fireflies freely flew out of the house, still glimmering, until they faded out of her sight.

Doray always saw to it that she was taking good care of her children even though she was always busy planting and weeding her family’s vegetable garden in their farm situated far from their small house. She was a loving mother of six children with her husband Tinoy who was a construction worker. Two of her daughters, Linda and Joy, were fostered by her sister Delia who owned a sari-sari store in the next village. Doray and Tinoy had foreseen that these two daughters could have better futures with their aunt, so they let them be raised by Delia. In return for being sent to school, Linda and Joy were working for their aunt as helps and cashiers in the store. Kaloy, on the other hand, the eldest of the siblings, had not been able to pursue college and started working with his father in the construction site in town two years after he finished high school. After all, he did not know what course to get for college. The other siblings, Mutya and Sarah, were in elementary, while Tonton was not yet studying.

Every morning, Doray always prepared sweetened cassava and sometimes camote or banana for the sisters to bring to school.

“Oh, Mutya, Sarah, get your bags now and hurry for school,” said Doray as she put the sweetened cassava in the cellophane for the girls’ merienda. “Your father and Manong Kaloy are waiting for you outside.”

“Yes, Mang,” answered the girls in unison as they hurried outside the house. They had to walk six kilometers to reach the nearest elementary school. That was why they had to wake up early every morning.

Their house was near a stream and surrounded by coconut trees. In their backyard were lush vegetation of camote, cassava, okra, and a small tree of balunggay primarily for their consumption and sometimes for the neighbors who would ask for them.

* * *

The dogs were howling plaintively when Doray was preparing for the family’s dinner while the kids were playing. Kaloy, on the other hand, was wiping his bike with a piece of old cloth. His father, Tinoy, was watching him while smoking. Finally, Doray called them for dinner.

“Pang,” Doray said while holding Tonton in her lap. “How was your day? I heard Bong was laid off in your construction. Is there anything he did wrong?”

“Ah, he did nothing wrong, but the project had a budget cut, so some workers had to be laid off. Bong is so pissed off. We were not informed ahead of their plan.”

“Who would not feel bad about that? Even Delia feels bad with what happened to her husband. Anyway, it’s good that you were not included in those who were dismissed. You wouldn’t be a tambay again.”

“Ha-ha. Of course, your husband is lucky and wise.”

“Sarah,” Doray said, cutting her conversation with her husband, as she saw the girl playing with her food. “Stop playing with your food and eat now. And by the way, go home straight after your school and do not ever play in the woods. Sinda is again rampant now. You better be alarmed after Nong Popoy cured Taling’s son this morning. They said the kid must have trampled on a kama-kama after he played in the dense area of their yard. The kama-kama must have punished him.”

“What happened to the kid then?” Tinoy asked.

“His left foot was swollen. He must have stepped by the area where the spirits are peacefully living.”

The neighbors in Sitio Cuello had a strong belief in the existence of the unseen—spirits that were peacefully living in the dense areas specifically on tall trees and mounds. According to the belief of the old people, when disturbed by humans, the spirits sought revenge by making ill those who had disturbed their silence. However, there were so-called white spirits. They were considered less vicious than the black ones. Once a person happened to disturb and upset these spirits, another way to be healed aside from asking help from a babaylan was to offer them fruit or white chicken’s blood and a prayer.

Doray was even more cautious with situations like this. She would always recall and retell her childhood days to her children after she intentionally shovelled any mound in their backyard. She had once wanted to prove that stories about spirits were not true. She destroyed an anthill, and that incident caused her left arm to swell and bloat in red. Thankfully, Nong Popoy came to the rescue. Old Popoy was a babaylan, a folk healer or albularyo believed to have a power and ability to fight bad spirits by performing odd rituals. After a week, Doray’s left arm got well, and never did she try again to disturb the mound. That experience made her believe that they existed.

* * *

The serenity of the rays of the sun was up, but Mutya was still fixed in bed. Tinoy was sipping his native coffee, while Kaloy was facing a small mirror combing his hair. Doray was now annoyed because she had told Mutya many times to wake up.

“Mutya!” called Doray for nth time, but she received no answer. She hurried to her room and realized Mutya was shivering.

Ay ginoo ko! You have a fever.”

“Mang, my head is terribly aching,” Mutya uttered in a low voice while she felt her mother’s palm on her sweaty, hot forehead. She was about to cry, but Doray’s tenderly comfort stopped her. Instead, she closed her eyes and covered herself with the blanket.

Doray prepared a wet towel and put it on Mutya’s forehead. This was also what her mother would do before when Doray was still young and sick. Doray then boiled guava and pomelo leaves for Mutya’s bath. She also cooked porridge, for Mutya had a hard time chewing her food.

After four days, Mutya was still not able to attend her classes. Doray and even the whole family were worried about her. It was also the fourth day since Doray was not able to sleep well. She had been trying to lower her daughter’s fever by keeping a wet towel on her forehead, but Mutya had not shown any sign of recovery. On the fifth day, Mutya complained of muscle pain and vomited several times. And at nighttime, she even had recurring seizures and would wake up sweating, telling her mother that she was disturbed by a noise. The young girl said she could hear different voices from outside the room. This alarmed Doray, and she decided to take her daughter to Nong Popoy.

* * *

“What did you do before you fell ill?” Nong Popoy asked Mutya.

“I saw her last Sunday night catching fireflies,” answered Doray without waiting Mutya to give hers.

“Ahh, you must have disturbed something, and this is a sinda. You know these fireflies. They are bad spirits that serve the kama-kama.”

Mutya was silent, observing what the old babaylan was doing.

Immediately, Nong Popoy got a dried ginger and gave it to Mutya. Sitting in sweat, she was ordered to hold the ginger tightly in her left hand. The old babaylan then held in his hand a dried coconut shell with a gold crystal-like resin, called kamangyan, and some dried leaves. He lit it with a match, and it started to produce smoke. Nong Popoy blew it a couple of times until he placed it on the floor. He then brought out the heated manunggal vine and smeared it on the girl’s stomach and tongue.

As the scent of the kamangyan filled the ambience of the house, Nong Popoy started to open his mouth and uttered several statements and prayers which Mutya and Doray can barely understand. Mutya, still closing her eyes and suffering from the bitter taste of the manunggal, is sweating. Doray, on the other hand, clutched her hands together like a devout believer of the old man, faithfully praying for her daughter.

Soon, Old Popoy ended his rite with his finger smearing an ash on Mutya’s forehead.

Sa ngalan sang Amay, sang Anak, kag sang Espirito Santo,” Nong Popoy recited as he formed a cross on Mutya’s forehead.

“Will she be OK now, Nong?”

“Let us wait, but it is best to always see her and check her fever. Continue to put a wet towel on her forehead to lower her fever. Give her also paracetamol.” Nong Popoy added, “Take her home now for her to rest.”

Doray handed him twenty pesos and went back home with Mutya.

* * *

Doray is preparing porridge for Mutya when she heard a loud shout coming from the room.

“Mang!” Sarah cried.

Doray dropped the ladle and immediately hurried to the girls’ room. Doray trembled. She was afraid of what had happened. Tinoy also rushed to see what the commotion was all about. From the small nipa door of the room, it was visible, the body of the little girl lying cold and frail.

“Mutya!” Doray cried. “What happened to you, gang?”

Tinoy right away held his daughter in his arms and carried her outside of the room. “Hurry! Let us take Mutya to the hospital. This is no longer normal.”

The family asked for help from a neighbor who had a tricycle. It was late in the evening, and darkness was swallowing the peacefulness of Sitio Cuello. Only the fair illumination of the night’s crescent helped the tricycle take Mutya to the hospital. Doray couldn’t stop crying.

When they arrived in the town’s public hospital, Mutya was rushed to the emergency room. Minutes later, the doctor declared Mutya dead on arrival.

Doray, now silently weeping, for she no longer had a voice to scream, was looking at the body of her sweet daughter. Mutya’s eyes were closed, and her skin was pale and cold.

“Your daughter might have had malaria . . .”

Doray, her eyes fixed at nothing in particular, did not hear what the doctor was saying before them. She did not even take time to reflect on what she had done and what had happened. She was blank and empty instead. Maybe she could not believe what had just happened to her daughter. Maybe she was thinking it was her fault. Her tears were gushing down her face, and Tinoy held her in his arms.

Nowheresville

By Jonathan Susvilla
Fiction

“Come here, Nora. Here kitty kitty.” Joshua scooped up the playful cat, brought it to the kitchen, put it on the island table, and stroked its belly, whilst taking out a knife, and murmured, “Take this, you little fucker—”

To the cat’s horror, Joshua stabbed it on the paw. He was quick to grab the now escaping and screaming cat. Upon contact, the pet convulsed, gave a final high-pitched screech that ceased all of a sudden.

Joshua put down Nora, which jumped off the island to settle on the couch. He followed her, sat beside her, and combed her soft fur with his fingers, sliding his hand to the paw that he had stabbed. “D’you see that, Nora? I have powers!” he told his repelling cat after seeing no trace of a cut. “Hah! How is that even possible?” He gasped. He began tracing back his whereabouts prior to that baffling incident and recollected nothing unusual transpiring that could result to him having been bestowed this superhero-like ability. He recalled getting lost in a movie that rather put his girlfriend to a snuffling sleep, and having a delectable dinner after. He pondered it could be he’d had this for a while and that only now did it have a chance to manifest.

He reached for his phone, thrilled to let his girlfriend know. Just as he was about to call her, his phone squealed so loudly, it startled him. He almost dropped it.

Speak of the devil. “My god! Joshua!” screamed his girlfriend. “I’m here at Dirk’s! I found him! I guess he’s dead! H-he’s in the bathroom . . . found him there! Oh my god! Come quick!”

“What happened?” Joshua inquired. “And why are you there?”

“He . . . We-we-we were g’na do something,” Laura said, hesitating. “Long story. God! Joshua, just come quick!”

Twenty minutes later, Joshua was knocking at the front door. His girlfriend, crying an ocean, opened the door, hugged him, and quickly wrenched him toward the bathroom upstairs.

“Wait,” Joshua said as he broke free from her clutch yet still following her. “So you came here and you just found him dead up there? How did you even get in? You’ve keys to his fuckin’ apartment?”

“I do,” she said, bowing down her head as if apologetic, but quickly snapped out of it. “Can we talk about this later, please?”

And there Dirk was—a little damp, exposing his log, lying down dead as a dodo. Joshua knelt down, noticed the slippery tiled flooring, surveyed Dirk’s body for any bruise or wound, and brought his ears close to Dirk’s nose to check for breathing—not breathing.

“Oh god,” his girlfriend screamed as Joshua shot her a blank stare, covered her mouth with both her hands, and turned around as she chuckled in remorse—reminiscent of a turkey gabbling.

Joshua was well aware of his ability by now but was uncertain if it would prove useful to somebody who’s already dead. He moved to touch Dirk but was stopped by the thought of just why his girlfriend was there—having even a key to the house.

“Is he dead then?” Laura asked.

“I think so. Did you already phone the police?”

“No! Should I call them? Is he really dead? D’you check the pulse?”

Joshua didn’t want to touch him in any way. Just the likelihood of them having an affair behind his back was just too much to bear. He’d rather that Dirk rest in peace. But what if it’s not true? They could be planning that surprise party for him. And quickly with no second thought, he gripped Dirk’s wrist, and just as he expected and to his dismay, the asshole came back to life—Dirk so suddenly awoke in a starving gasp for air as if surfacing after being submerged on water for a period beyond the endurable time.

Laura turned quickly at the sound of breathing and rushed to the disconcerted Dirk for a bone-breaking embrace. The scene just furthered Joshua’s gut feel. “We thought you were dead!” the ecstatic, teary-eyed Laura said.

“What happened?” Dirk, who’s rather calm, inquired.

“You must have tripped as you stepped out of the tub,” Joshua tried to shed light to it.

“I was conscious . . . but I could not move my body. I felt like I was in a dream I could not wake up from. I felt weightless and began to float. Then felt some force . . . some shock . . . that seemed to breathe a new life to me. It woke me up.”

Dirk narrowed his eyes, crossed his brows and slightly pouted his lips before darting uncomfortable stares at Joshua and Laura, back and forth. While Laura was side-eyeing Joshua. There was silence—awkward silence.

“Okay! Glad you’re okay, man.” Joshua filled the dead air.

“Your birthday! We were gonna plan your surprise part—that’s why I’m here!” Laura exclaimed in an attempt to explain her shady presence at the unlikely place.

Unconvinced, Joshua turned to Dirk, subtly dismissing Laura’s alibi.

“You might wanna get scanned for any internal injury. And as for me, Imma head home . . . finish my laundry, feed my cat, murder my neighbor . . . I dunno. Ciao!” Joshua directed Dirk, tapping his shoulder, gripping it, and shaking it firmly twice. He turned back to Laura whose head was down. “Your fuckin’ boyfriend needs a ride to a hospital!”

Now traversing the lengthy pathway across the rather scantily lighted park heading home, Joshua kept thinking about just how he never had an inkling there was something going on between the two. He lit a cigarette as he paused to sit on a bench. He started to regret he deferred Dirk’s entry to hell. He thought of Laura, whom he had been with for years. He completely understood it’s a possibility they’d fall out of love. In fact, he saw it coming. He just expected Laura to be honest to him had it occurred to her. And of all people, why my fuckin’ mate?

His thought quickly transitioned to the strange ability he obviously possessed. It was a complete puzzle how he got it, but instead of spending time trying to make sense of it all, his thoughts centered on the range of possibilities of what/where/who he could exploit it on. He could pop in to a hospital, touch every person there dying or in a critical condition—an excellent idea. An idea he disputed right away—Why the fuck would I do that? Nothing in it for me. Having just helped an unworthy bastard, he was resolved not to waste it on anyone but someone who truly deserved it.

He quickly thought of his adoptive mother, the only family he had, who passed away the year before. If he could play Jesus to “Lazarus” Dirk, maybe he could raise mommy from the dead too. He tossed the cigarette butt, and as he began to rise, he felt feebleness—his body seemed to want for him to just take the weight off his feet and slumber. And his body started to be intolerant of the cold.

He reached home and made for the bathroom right away. As he gazed at his reflection, his pale face and dry, cracked lips said hello. He felt his neck—rather cold. He began to feel thirsty. He surveyed his whole body and noticed his skin was dry. He reached for his back and found it scaly; so were his outer thighs. He spent minutes looking at the mirror—motionless, sunk in thought. This so-called gift definitely wasn’t going to be squandered on just anyone. Hell no.

How I Remember Us

By Gian Carlo Licanda
Fiction

I can no longer remember who fell asleep first. All I remember was how I lay there, burying my face into him, taking him in, everything about him—his warmth, his scent, the feel of his shirt on my face. I remember how he wrapped me in his arms, cautiously, as if I was a fragile butterfly which, in a way, I was. I remember his fingers gently stroking the back of my head, entangling with my hair that was beginning to feel sweaty.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he whispered.

I didn’t say anything. I just stayed still, sobbing, my chest heaving with the effort of not letting a sound of hurt and despair out from my mouth. I just nestled into him, my tears flowing fast and silent, cascading in a perfect stealth. I clung into him in what seemed to be my last gesture of holding on, of fighting for us, for the love I had always believed to be true.

And with the last of my strength, I finally managed to say in a broken whisper, “Please, don’t leave me.”

He didn’t answer. But I knew he heard me because his stroking had stopped, and he held me into him closer, tighter, and by then he was crying, too.

We stayed like that for minutes, hours, I could not remember anymore. We were silent and just let the open air hung awkwardly around us because what else was there to say?

I can no longer remember who fell asleep first. All I remember was when I woke up, he was no longer there. I was left with a pillow wet from the tears we cried in the night, and a sheet that had turned cold in his absence.

And for all the memories we shared together, that was what lasted in my mind. That was how I remember us— two broken things, one was holding on, while the other was already letting go.

Scrutiny

by Emmylou Shayne Layog (Fiction)

He had a long day, okay? Panoy only wanted to impress his boss, his VIP, his Subject. Maybe nerves made him do it. But still—he shouldn’t have. He could have just waited a little more until the man introduced himself. Well, in his defense, the man—who turned out to be a congressman from Manila, he is very much aware of that now—literally came hurtling toward The Subject. And Panoy pushed him off. Right after that, the congressman’s face turned a shade of red he could never ever forget for the rest of his life.

The moments that came after were a blur. It was supposed to be a leisurely stroll at the SM Mall of Asia. It was Panoy’s first time there. But then he noticed something—a figure—in his peripheral view. It ran toward them. His reflexes kicked in, and the next thing he knew, there was an angry congressman shouting curses at him while The Subject calmed the man down. Panoy couldn’t speak after that, and he absent-mindedly followed after his companions as they left the mall in a hurry. They weren’t trained to memorize names of politicians in VIP Security Protection course.

Now he’s sitting on one of the twin beds in a luxury hotel room The Subject booked for his bodyguards. They’re in Manila for a publicity event; it was basically his first time to fly. He’s been The Subject’s bodyguard for three years, and now he finally got to travel. But he may or may not have just put his job in jeopardy. He takes a minute to survey the well-lit, air-conditioned room. Two of his companions are already fast asleep. The other one, Bebot, is on the phone with his wife—probably checking on his family. All of them directly accompany The Subject on this trip. Five more are with Madam, The Subject’s wife.

Panoy also decides to call home. He thinks it’ll calm him a bit. Or a lot. After a few minutes, Francis—his eldest son—answers on the third ring.

“Boy? Kumusta?”

Dada Panoy! How are you? How’s Manila?”

“I’m OK, boy. It’s very… different, here. O, kamo diha? Are you watching over your sisters? Dada misses all of you!”

Panoy’s eyes already feel heavy with tears. It’s the first time he’s been this far from them.

Grabe, it’s only been a day, Da. Do you want to talk to Mami?”

He hears his son call out his wife’s name.

Dada, I have to go, ok? Magpraktis pa ko. Here, talk to Mami.”

“Hello? Dada? Unsa man? Is everything all right?”

Panoy chats with his wife for a few moments before the bodyguards were being summoned downstairs for dinner. Mao na ni, he thought. I’m getting fired before I can touch my rice.

That night, their dinner—which almost made Panoy forget his dilemma—cost a whopping five hundred thousand pesos. The Subject doesn’t even bat an eye when he was presented with the bill. He acknowledges the waiter to say thank you, then passes the bill onto his money guy—who had the goods ready before anyone could spare a glance.

He sees The Subject get up from his seat and whisper something to Bebot, who is keeping watch by the door. Bebot gestures to Panoy and he leaves the dining hall with them. The Subject has to entertain a few questions from the media. Reporters crowd outside Edsa Shangri-la Hotel. Once outside, he waves to the sea of people swarming the venue.

“Mr. Congressman, do you plan on selling your mansion in Forbes Park?”

“Sir, will you be absent when you’re in the Senate?”

“Congressman, what can you say about same sex marriage?”

That question seemed to catch The Subject’s attention. He turns to the reporter to give her an answer.

“As Christian, for me, no to same sex marriage. Babae sa lalaki. Lalaki, sa babae. Common sense,” The Subject shares his conservative views about the topic.

“Any more comments, congressman?”

“In animals, have you ever seen babae sa babae, lalaki sa lalaki? O di ba, wala? Mas masahol pa sa hayop ang tao,” he lets out a hollow laugh.

The reporter nods and takes notes from The Subject’s statement. More reporters seem to take this as opportunity to ask more questions. The Subject gives answers that were not as memorable as the last one, as the reporters noticeably don’t have any more follow-up questions after that. They stop asking him about his plans if he wins a seat in the Senate. They only want the hottest gossip they can get from the Subject.

When it was done, they retreat inside the hotel. Panoy hears a very particular voice call his name.

“Edgar Dequilla?”

Panoy can recognize that voice anywhere. He has heard the voice from various platforms and sources—music being the strangest of them all. Panoy takes a deep breath before facing The Subject. At least he waited until after dinner, he thought.

“Yes, Sir?”

He sees The Subject’s amused expression and instantly relaxes.

“I knew I had the best bodyguard from Gensan. Asta diri sa Manila,” he chuckles. It echoed throughout the Shangri-la hallways.

“Sorry, Sir. Reflexes lang ‘guro,” Panoy laughs with him and he feels a strong arm grip his shoulder.

“It’s fine, Edgar. I know you were just doing your job.”

“Just call me Panoy, sir.”

The Subject tightens the grip on his shoulder and lets go, walking away.

Diri sa ko, Panoy.”

That night, he falls asleep knowing he still had a job.

The Subject gives ten thousand pesos to each of the bodyguards to spend “for your family only, not for other families. Oke?”

Panoy splurges on chocolates, but he makes sure to buy his wife a Gucci-looking handbag, and matching dresses for his little girls. He drops by The Subject’s sporting goods store to buy his son personalized hand wraps and boxing gloves. Francis isn’t interested in any sport, is he? Or is he into those computer games, like all the kids these days? Well, Panoy thinks it’ll be a great idea to introduce Francis to boxing. He would like to maybe—just maybe—see the next People’s Champ in his son, too.

Three days—and a few congressmen he actually recognized, thanks to his companions—later, he comes home to General Santos City with pasalubong for his family. The Subject gave them the day off. He spends it lounging on their sofa and waiting for the children to come home from school.

Panoy reaches for the remote control when his daughters—Pam and Dayna—barge and attack their Dada with hugs.

“What took you so long?” Panoy asks them.

“We had to wait for Kuya. But he told us to go ahead. Bless ko, Dada.”

He turns the TV on to watch the evening news and immediately sees The Subject on the headlines again. His daughters check out the pasalubong he brought for them; Dayna munches on some chocolate and Pam is holding her new dress up for her Mami to see.

Dada, that’s your boss, right?” Dayna makes herself comfortable on her Dada’s lap.

Nahaharap sa panibagong kontrobersiya si Sarangani representative—“

Soon enough, Panoy’s wife, Jenny, joins them. They all watch Panoy’s boss continue to get criticized on national television. A few minutes later, Francis arrives, all sweaty and breathless.

“Where have you been, boy?”

“Practice, Dada. Bless ko.” Francis kisses his Dada’s cheek.

“Boy, I bought you boxing equipment, o.” Panoy calls out to his son.

“Sige lang, Dada!” Francis’ answer disappoints him. He was already disappearing to his room.

“Please try them out for me, ok?”

Francis didn’t reply. He probably didn’t hear Panoy.

Later, after eating dinner, it was Panoy’s turn to wash the dishes. He sees his son emerge from his room to gather the boxing equipment in his arms.

“I’ll go see if they fit me, Dada.”

This lifted Panoy’s spirits.

“Sige, boy. Who knows? Maybe you could be the next People’s Champ!” He grins at his son. Francis goes back to his room.

Jenny arranges the dishes after her husband washed them. As she puts away the last of the utensils, Panoy remembers to ask her about Francis.

“He practices at The Subject’s mansion. Maybe you guys could go together tomorrow, ‘da.”

The next day, Edgar Dequilla is back to work. It’s a Friday—which means The Subject’s church mates from River of God flock inside the mansion’s basketball court for the weekly Bible Study. The River of God’s own auditorium—courtesy of The Subject, of course—is currently under construction.

Panoy arrives at the venue with his son. Immediately, Francis runs to the other kids who practice together with the choir. So that’s what kept him busy all this time. Panoy notices that his son was the only boy in the little Bible dancer team, group—whatever they are called.

The Bible Study begins moments later, with worship songs signalling the commencement of the program. His son moves as gracefully as the other dancers. It seems like all the days of practicing paid off.

Hala, that’s your son, right, Panoy?”

Bebot nudges him and waits for him to answer.

“Yes, that’s him. That’s my son.”

He takes a deep breath and continues to observe his son move to the beat of the song. After the routine was over, the dancers sit on the bleachers and the pastor takes his place on the stage.

Today’s preach especially includes the latest issue involving The Subject. The pastor expresses his support for The Subject over the flak surrounding him.

“Leviticus 18:22 says ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.’ Same-sex marriage is an abomination. Our church is one with our good congressman—and future Senator—over here”—the pastor points to The Subject—“in condemning all acts of homosexuality. God does not want us to stray away from his Word!”

As the pastor continues to express his sentiments about the matter, Panoy’s companion, Bebot prods at him again.

“Look, Edgar. Frank bayot is leaving,” Bebot points to Madam’s personal assistant, who is getting up from his seat.

Only a few people notice him, including the bodyguards keeping watch by the main gate. Soon enough, Frank reaches the area where Panoy and the others are.

“Sir Frank, molakaw na ka? You won’t finish the sermon?”

“I’ll go ahead, kuya Edgar. My migraine is getting worse by the minute.” Frank puts his right hand against his temple. Panoy opens the gate for him.

Amping, Ma’am, ay, Sir Frank!” Bebot calls out after Frank. The latter ignores him. Panoy reprimands his colleague.

Buang ka, Bebot. That wasn’t funny. He didn’t even acknowledge you.”

Bebot stops laughing at his own joke and whispers, “I don’t care, Panoy.”

There is only silence for a few beats until Bebot quipped,

Ikaw? Why do you care? Bayot pod ka?”

Panoy doesn’t respond. He glances back at the ongoing Bible Study and sees his son already watching the exchange with Frank and the bodyguards. For a moment, their eyes meet. Francis is the first to look away.