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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Tagu-taguan

By Blesselle Fiel
Fiction

Tagu-taguan, maliwanag ang buwan.
Masarap maglaro sa dilim-diliman.
Pagkabilang ko ng tatlo nakatago na kayo.
Isa. Dalawa. Tatlo.

“Bang, Alvin! Bang, Dodong!”

Halong tawa at panghihinayang ang narinig sa magkalaro nang nahuli sila. Paano nga ba sila hindi mahuhuli e nakatayo lang sila sa likod ni Junjun?

“Sa susunod,” sambit ni Junjun habang umiikot sa paligid ng kalsada, “kung ayaw n’yong mahuli agad, magtago kayo nang maayos. Ang dami namang puwedeng mapagtataguan diyan.”

Nakita niyang nakatago sa likod ng isang paso si Princess. Ang itim na buhok nito ay di matakpan ng berdeng dahon ng tanim. “Bang, Princess!”

Dali-daling tumakbo si Junjun mula sa kaniyang puwesto kanina at hinampas ang pader. Tuwang-tuwa siya dahil sa unang pagkakataon nahuli niya silang lahat. Kung puwede nga lang i-celebrate, gagawin niya. Sa ngayon, nanamnamin na lang ni Junjun ang kaniyang maliit na tagumpay.

Pasado alas-singko na ng hapon. Kanina pa sila naglalaro sa kalsada sa harap ng kanilang mga tahanan. Kahit ilang oras na ang nakalipas, hindi nauubusan ng lakas ang mga pawis na pawis na paslit.

Babalik na sana sila sa kanilang paglalaro nang mapadaan ang tatay ni Junjun. Katulad ng ibang araw, umuwi na naman itong lasing at may hawak na pulang supot. Dinig na dinig nilang magkakaibigan ang sigawan mula sa loob. Nagliliparan mula sa dalawang bibig ang mga salitang nagnakaw, lasing, ayoko na, at kriminal.

Hay. Lagi na lang.

Nanlumo si Junjun. Lagi na lang ganito ang eksena sa loob ng kanilang bahay. Lahat ng kasiyahan na dulot ng kanilang paglilibang ay naglahong mistulang bula. Hindi naman lingid sa kaalaman niya ang pinaggagawa ng kaniyang itay. Ngunit sino nga ba siya upang baguhin ang pamamaraan nito, ang hanapbuhay nito?

Anak lang naman.

Anak na wala pang pinag-aralan. Anak na walang patutunguhan. Anak na walang kinabukasan.

Mas mabuti na lang na hayaan niya na lamang ito.

Tinapik ni Princess si Junjun sa balikat. “Halika, maglaro na lang tayo ulit. Si Dodong naman ang taya.”

Isang munting ngiti ang naipinta sa mukha ni Junjun. Isang tango at bumalik sa paglalaro ang mga bata. Nakatabon na ang mga kamay ni Dodong sa kaniyang mga mata, dinig na dinig ang mga padyak ng anim na maliliit na paa.

Tagu-taguan, maliwanag ang buwan.
Masarap maglaro sa dilim-diliman.
Pagkabilang ko ng tatlo nakatago na kayo.
Isa. Dalawa. Tatlo—

Bang!

Malalim na ang gabi. Pilit na ikinukubli ni Junjun ang kaniyang pautal-utal na paghinga. Sa isang maliit na eskinita, pilit na itinatago niya ang kaniyang sarili

Dapat hindi nila ako makita, ang sabi niya sa isip niya. Parang awa n’yo na, ayaw kong makulong.

Pinagsiksikan ni Junjun ang kaniyang katawan sa mga sako ng basura, nagdadasal na sila’y mapadaan lang at titigil rin sa paghahabol sa kaniya.

Lagi na lang kasi e.

Lagi na lang siyang wanted sa kanilang paningin. Lagi na lang dapat maliksi ang mga kamay kapag may kinukupit, mabilis ang mga paa kapag hinahabol. Lagi na lang siyang pinagagalitan ng kaniyang konsensiya at binabangungot sa gabi.

Hindi niya naman ito ginusto. Sadyang ito lang talaga ang buhay na ibinigay sa kaniya. Ang buhay na hinubog ng kaniyang itay para sa kaniya. Napakarami niyang pangarap sa buhay, ngunit tila lahat ng ito’y nilipad ng usok ng sigarilyo ng kaniyang ama.

Bakit ganito? Bakit siya pa?

Sabagay, kung tutuusin, hindi lang naman siya ang nalulong sa masamang bisyo. Si Alvin at Dodong ay nagtutulak na ng droga. Si Princess, ang unica hija ng kanilang pamilya, ay isa nang Magdalena.

At siya? Mula noon hanggang ngayon, nanatiling naglalaro, nagtatago sa dilim.

Kung puwede nga lang sana bumalik sa nakaraan, bumalik sa liwanag. Hindi naman siguro magkakaletse-letse ang buhay niya.

Siguro’y nakapag-aral siya—elementarya, hayskul, at kolehiyo, kung kakayanin.

Siguro kung nakapagtapos siya, isa na siyang doktor ngayon.

Siguro—

Bang!

Lagot.

Dali-daling tumakbo si Junjun. Nakabuntot sa kaniya ang mga lalaking naka-uniporme, may hawak na baril. Kaliwa, kanan, kaliwa, kanan. Kasing tulin ng kabayo sa kalsada. Kabisado niya na ang pasikot-sikot ng kalye. Siguro naman ay makakatakas siya ngayon, tulad ng dati.

Bang!

Hindi pala.

Bumagsak ang katawan ni Junjun paharap. Naging kulay pula ang kalsada. Unti-unti na siyang nawawalan ng malay, at hindi niya alam kung pinaglalaruan siya ng isip niya, pero naririnig niya ang kantang madalas niyang inaawit no’ng bata pa siya.

Tagu-taguan, maliwanag ang buwan.
Masarap maglaro sa dilim-diliman.
Pagkabilang kong tatlo nakatago na kayo.
Isa. Dalawa. Tatlo.

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

Sirena

by Mark Sherwin Castronuevo Bayanito
Fiction

Nilusob ni Ezra ang dagat ng Sarangani. Wala siyang pakialam kung hatinggabi na at wala siyang saplot, basta lamang makita niya ang kababalaghang naroroon. Kumalas naman ang bilog na buwan sa pagkakataklob ng mga ulap. Sa liwanag na hatid nito’y mayroon siyang nakita: ulong may mga matang nakatingin sa kanya.

Sinara ko muna ang aking laptop. Nakakapagod kayang mag-isip ng kuwento, lalo na kung ito’y eksperimental – kung ano man ‘yon. Wala pa akong naisip na pamagat, pati ng karugtong ng unang talata. Bakit ko kasi pinagdiskitahang isulat ang sabi-sabi dati na may sirena sa Sarangani Bay, sa may Barangay Bula banda. Pero magtanong ka sa isang taga-GenSan o taga-Barangay Bula, wala silang kaalam-alam tungkol dito. Hindi kasi nila binabasa ang libro ni Ramirez. E, kasaysayan pa naman ‘yon ng lungsod. Hay naku. Kahit na isang talata pa lang ang nagagawa ko ay gusto ko munang magpahinga.

“Uuwi ka ba sa summer?” tanong ni Ezra sa text.

“Hindi e.” text ko naman pabalik.

Wala siyang kaalam-alam na ginagamit ko siya para sa aking kuwento.

Nalalapit na ang pista ng Santo Niño sa Barangay Bula. Nalalapit na ang magarbong selebrasyon at ang paligsahan ng pagsagwan sa Sarangani Bay. Nalalapit na rin ang ika-18 na kaarawan ni Ezra, kasabay ng pista, sa ika-15 ng Enero.

Nalalapit na.

Nilapit ni Ezra ang kanyang mukha sa mukha ng kanyang kasama. Hinalikan siya nito. Nagpumiglas si Ezra, sa unang pagkakataon.

“O bakit?” tanong ni Karen.

“Wala,” sagot naman ni Ezra. “Huwag kang pumunta sa debut ko, ha.”

“Bakit naman? Ikinahihiya mo ako?” tanong ni Karen.

“Oo. Hanggang dito na lang tayo.” sabi ni Ezra, at dali-daling naglakad papalayo.

Sinara kong muli ang laptop. Sumasakit na ang aking mga mata sa ilang oras ng pagtutok sa screen nito. Tuloy-tuloy pa rin ang pag-uusap namin ni Ezra sa text. Nakakairita na siyang maka-text paminsan pero hinahayaan ko na lang. Baka sakaling may makuha akong magandang ideya mula sa kanya. Binuksan kong muli ang laptop. Microsoft Word.

Nanaginip si Ezra isang gabi. Nasa baybayin siya. Naaamoy niya ang lansa ng dagat, tulad ng mga pinapatuyong isda na ibinebenta sa palengke. Sinusubukan niyang tingnan ang malayong dako ng dagat. Wala siyang makita.

“Ma, anong ulam?” tanong ni Ezra sa kanyang ina.

“Tinanghali ka na naman ng gising! Hay naku, Ezra! Madami pa tayong gagawin! Magbukas ka na lang diyan ng lata ng sardinas!” sagot ng kanyang ina.

Araw na kasi bago ng pista. Madami nang kailangang paghandaan. Madaming kailangang gawin.

“Ezra, bantayan mo nga pala si Jun-jun. Baka pumunta sa laot, kukunin ng sirena.” sabi ng kanyang nanay.

“May sirena diyan?” tanong ni Ezra.

“Pista ngayon. Maraming lalaki na nawawala sa dagat. Kinukuha ng sirena.” tugon naman ng kanyang nanay.

“Ma, anong itsura no’n? Ng sirena?” tanong pa ni Ezra.

“Hay naku. Basta. Ulo ng babae tapos katawan agad ng isda. Wala nang leeg.”

“Pa’no ni’yo nalaman?”

“Tanong ka naman nang tanong! Tumigil ka nga!”

Abalang-abala ang lahat sa paghahanda. Abala si Ezra sa makailang beses na pagsukat ng gown na susuotin niya sa kanyang kaarawan. Lagi na lang ang kaarawan ni Ezra ang nagiging kulminasyon ng pista. Kung lalaki nga lang raw si Ezra ay siya na ang Santo Niño.

Tumigil ako sa pagsusulat para magsipilyo ng ngipin. Iniisip ko kung paano dadaloy ang kuwento. Dapat may lalaki rin sa buhay ni Ezra. Aba. Parang manliligaw lang a. Naku. Kung wala lang akong eksam sa Math, hindi ako maghihirap ng ganito sa paggawa ng kuwento.

Pumunta si Ezra sa labas, sa baybayin. Naroroon ang mga lalaking abala sa pagpipinta ng mga bangkang ipanlalaban sa pista.

May lumapit na lalaki kay Ezra, walang pantaas, at may dalang dalawang supot ng Coke. “Inom ka muna, miss,” sabi nito.

“Salamat. Ano’ng pangalan mo?”

“Raul. Ikaw?”

“Ezra.”

“A! Ikaw ‘yong taga-malaking bahay!”

“A, oo.”

[Makalipas ang mahaba-habang pag-uusap]

“Uy, punta ka naman sa birthday party ko bukas.” sabi ni Ezra.

“Pwede ba ako do’n? Wala akong susuotin.”

“Ay. Magkita na lang tayo sa labas ng bahay.”

“Pa’no?”

“Basta.”

Tatalikod na si Ezra nang nabigla siya sa nakita niya sa laot. Isang buntot ng sirena.

Nang lumingon naman si Raul ay wala naman itong nakita.

“Mauna na ako,” sabi na lang ni Ezra.

Kinagabihan, nanaginip muli si Ezra. Nakita niya si Karen, nakatayo sa harapan niya, sa baybayin ng dagat. Biglang dumating si Raul at nilunod si Karen sa dagat. Nakatayo lamang si Ezra, pinagmamasdan ang nangyayari. Maya-maya, nagpakita ang isang sirena. Inakit nito si Raul at sabay silang naglaho sa dagat. Naiwan si Ezrang nakatayo lang sa baybayin.

Kinatok ako ni Gilbert. Naistorbo na naman ako sa ginagawa ko. Pumapasok pa naman ang mga ideya sa isipan ko. Ayun. Nawawala na naman.

“Sherwin! Pa’no mo pinag-aralan ‘yong mga alkanes, alkenes, chuva?” tanong ni Gilbert.

“Ha? Bakit? May paraan ba talaga para pag-aralan ‘yun?” tanong ko naman, nalilito sa tanong niya.

“Hindi. Kasi ang gagawin ni sir, may malaking molecule tapos ‘yong iba’t ibang organic molecules,” sagot naman niya.

“E di i-drawing mo muna.”

“May drawing na doon.”

“I-drawing mo.”

“May drawing na nga.”

“I-drawing mo nga ulit para matuto ka. Umalis ka na nga. Madami akong ginagawa.”

Sumikat na ang araw. Marami ang mga dumayo sa Barangay Bula upang makikain, hindi talaga para ipagdiwang ang araw ng Santo Niño. Masyado nang matrapik sa mga daanan. Nagkasalubong ang landas nina Karen at Ezra.

“Ano bang problema mo?” tanong ni Karen kay Ezra, mahigpit na hinahawakan ang braso nito.

“Ano’ng problema mo rin?” sabi ni Ezra, pilit na nagpupumiglas.

“So ganito na lang tayo?”

“Wala nang tayo!”

Dumating si Raul at agad na inilayo si Ezra kay Karen.

“Umalis ka na!” sigaw ni Raul kay Ezra.

“Salamat, Raul,” sabi ni Ezra.

“Wala iyon. Bakit ka nandito? Di ba kaarawan mo ngayon?” tanong ni Raul kay Ezra.

“A, oo. Naghahanda pa lang sila.” sagot naman ni Ezra.

Maghapong nag-usap sina Ezra at Raul, at nang malapit nang gumabi, bumalik na si Ezra sa kanyang bahay.

“O, sa’n ka galing? Kanina pa kita pinapahanap kay Jun-jun! Gabi na, Ezra!” sermon ng nanay ni Ezra pagkarating niya ng bahay.

Hindi niya ito pinansin. Agad na niyang sinuot ang kanyang pulang gown at nagpa-make up.

Pumasok sa kuwarto ko si Kuya Jerome.

“Uy, labas tayo. May movie marathon sa TV area,” sabi ni Kuya Jerome.

“O talaga? Ano’ng palabas?” tanong ko naman.

“The Classic,” sagot niya.

“Korean?” tanong ko ulit.

“Oo,” sagot niya ulit.

“Napanood ko na ‘yon,” sabi ko naman.

Malalim na ang gabi. Matapos asikasuhin ni Ezra ang kanyang mga panauhin, tumakas siya at lumabas, may dala-dalang mga bote ng alak.

Naabutan niya sa labas si Raul.

“O, ba’t ka may dalang alak?” tanong ni Raul.

Binaba ni Ezra ang mga bote ng alak at hinagkan si Raul nang madiin.

Ayan. Malapit na akong matapos. Pero tinatamad na akong magpatuloy. Hay naku. Sandali, ano na ba ang gagawin ni Ezra at Raul sa bandang ito? Magtatanan? Magtatalik? Magtatagay? Ay ewan. Basta pupunta sila ng baybayin ng Sarangani Bay.

Nilusob ni Ezra ang dagat ng Sarangani. Wala siyang pakialam kung hatinggabi na at wala siyang saplot, basta lamang makita niya ang kababalaghang naroroon, ang misteryosong sirena. Kumalas ang bilog na buwan sa pagkakataklob ng mga ulap. Sa liwanag na hatid nito’y mayroon siyang nakita: ulong may mga matang nakatingin sa kanya. Ang mga matang nakatingin sa kanya ay napakapamilyar. Mukha niya ang nakikita niya. Ngunit hindi iyon repleksiyon lamang. Lumitaw ang karugtong ng katawan — makaliskis, maitim. Iyon na pala ang sirena, sirenang may ulong tao – ulo niya – at katawan ng isda. Tama nga ang nanay niya. Wala na itong leeg. Hindi maalindog. Hindi maganda.

Ayan! Patapos na talaga ako! Makakapag-aral na ako sa wakas ng Math. Hay naku. Huling talata na lang.

Natapos na ang piyesta kinabukasan. Laking gulat ng matatanda sa Barangay Bula na wala ni isang lalaking nawala sa dagat. Naging mapagbigay ngayon ang mahiwagang sirena. Nagluluksa naman ngayon ang pamilya ni Ezra sa bigla niyang pagkawala. Isang gown na lamang ang natagpuan sa baybayin.

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.

Koronadal Horror Story

By Matt S. F. Jones
Fiction

Dugay-dugay, nakaabot na kami ni Choy sa pastilan. Mga lima kabilog ang customer. Pagkatapos ko park sang motor, diretso kami sulod kag kadto sa counter. Tigulang nga babae ang gabantay. Gakusmod. Galaminday. Ako nag-order. “Gwaps, duha ka order. Double. Ngayo lang kami dayon sabaw.”

“Sige, sir,” sabat sang manugbantay. “Forty pesos tanan.”

Ginkuot ko pitaka ko kag nagbayad. Nagpungko kami duha ni Choy sa lamesa kag naghulat.

“Ano natabo sa imo, pak?” pamangkot ni Choy. “Ngaa nagkaya-kaya ka sa tunga dalan?”

Gin-share ko sa iya ang mga nakita ko gaina. Indi magpati si Choy. “Gulpi lang sila nadula pag-abot ko?” pamangkot niya.

“Oo,” sabat ko. “Kibot gani ko. Kagton na tani ko sang alpot nga to, maayo lang nag-abot ka.”

Nabugto ang istorya namon pag-abot ka order namon. Nakabutang sa dahon ka saging nga nakapatong sa nito nga pinggan. Naghugas kami kamot sa gripo sa kilid kag nag-umpisa kaon.

Siling ko kay Choy, “Ari pa gani di ang yosi nga ginhatag ka mal-am, pak. Grabe. Wala buhin maski nasindihan ko kag naka-puff ko.”

“Palantaw bi.”

Ginkuot ko sa bulsa ko kag ginduhol sa iya. Nag-untat siya kaon kag ginpanilagan niya maayo.

“Puta no? Daw Black Bat man ni. Ha-ha.”

“Amo man gani na naisip ko paghatag niya. Ha-ha. No choice that time kay uhaw na gid.”

Samtang ginalantaw ni Choy ang sigarilyo, ginbutngan ko kalamansi ang pastil ko, pero nagdako ang mata ko. May amat-amat nagabutwa sa tunga ka pastil ko. Ginpanilagan ko maayo.

Pagkaklaro ko kung ano ini, gindupla ko ang kinaon ko kag nagtindog. Gakurog nga gintudlo ko ang pinggan. “Pak, may . . . may mata sa pastil!”

Ara gid. Mata ka tao sa tunga sang pastil. Gatulok sa akon.

Ginlantaw ni Choy ang pastil ko. “Ha? Wala man ko may makita, pak.”

“Ara oh. Lantawa mayad!” Boses ko gakurog na.

Ginpalapit ni Choy itsura niya sa pastil ko. Ara japon ang mata gatulok sa akon, pero indi niya makita. Tanan nga tao sa pastilan gatulok sa amon. Nagtulok ko sa ila tanan. Pagbalik ko tulok sa pastil ko, wala na ang mata.

Dasig balik ko pungko kag ginbakol ang lamesa ka inomol. Bang! Tanan nga gamit sa babaw lamesa gauyog. “Ano gakatabto sa akon man!”

Naugot na gid ko. Galumaw-lumaw mga mata ko sa kaakig. Mga tao sa piyak lamesa gahutikanay. Ang tigulang sa counter gakabalaka. “OK ka lang, sir?”

“OK lang siya, nay,” sabat ni Choy. “Sorry, ginbasted abi siya. Ha-ha.”

Ginguyod niya dayon pulungkuan niya dikit sa akon kag naghutik, “Pak, be honest. Nagkinapre ka kagab-i?”

“Wala takon ga-four-twenty-dahon-shit nga na, linte! Upod ta di ba the whole time?”

“Shhh. Kalma lang, pak. Ari ko di.”

Nag-ginhawa ko dalom para magkalma. “Tama ka, pak. Sorry.”

“Ari, para magpahuway isip mo. Kung tuod ang ginapanghambal mo nga ginapakitaan ka sang yawa-yawa, kadto ta bwas sa albularyo. May nabal-an ko.”

Nagsiga mga mata ko kag nagpagsik gulpi tungod sa pag-asa nga hatag niya. “Seryoso ka? Ma . . . masolusyunan niya ni?”

“Lagi, pak. Salig lang.”

“Sige.”

Nagtindog kami duha kag nangayo pasensya sa tanan nga tao sa palibot.

“Ta, pak,” hagad ko kay Choy. “Dul-ong ta ka.”

“Indi na, pak. Diretso na sa apartment mo. Pahuway. Damo tricycle di.”

“Sige, pak.”

“Kadtoan ta ka bwas alas-sais. Aga pa ta para makauna.”

“Swabe, pak. Kita-kits!”

Ginduhol niya balik ang itom nga yosi sa akon. Timing dayon may tricycle nag-agi. Gintawag niya kag nagsakay.

Ginkadtoan ko motor ko. Sakay, butang susi, sipa stand, kag nagtulok sa babaw langit. Lord . . .

Ginpaandar ko dayon motor ko kag nagbiyahe pakadto apartment.

Pero gulpi naglamig dugo ko sa nakita ko sa dalan. Sa unhan sang isa ka tattoo shop, may duha ka anino. Gasaot. Indi ko maklaro kay kapoy na utok ko kag dulom ang dalan.

Ari na man?

Nagsampok mga kilay kag nagdako buho ka ilong ko. Dasig kag nabaw ang ginhawa. Gabukal ang dugo nga lamig kagina.

“Puta, ginaano nyo ko man?”

Ugot na gid ko. Gadulom panan-awan ko. Kung ano man ang diputa nga na, lasakon ko. Pula nga tela sila, ako ang toro. Ginrebolusyon ko ang motor. Full speed dayon pakadto to. Patay kung patay!

Brom-brroooooom!

Pero samtang gapalapit na ko, gabiti ang tampa ka realidad. Klaro na. Indi gali engkanto ang nakita ko. Duha ka ido gali nga gapalanggaanay. Ha-ha. Anino gali to nila, linte.

Pero kung indi ko kapundo in time? Kapihan kag pulawan gid kami tatlo.

Bakas todo tapak ko dayon ka break. Gaikis ang buli ka motor. Gasala na ko. Tumba na ko tani kung wala ko gintukod ang mga tiil sa semento. Literal nga foot break.

Duha ka dupa na lang, untat tani honeymoon sang mga ido. Maayo lang nakahingagaw ko pundo bag-o sila nalasak. Likod lang nila makita ko samtang ga-Hachiko style sila duha. Lipay ko pero gakurog lawas kag espirito ko.

Ang kaakig ko kag kahadlok nadula. Relief kag kalipay ang nagbulos. “Bombahi, bru! Ha-ha!” cheer ko sa aktor nga ido nga ga-twerk with feelings. Sigurado buang o bipolar na ang perception ka mga tao sa akon kay gakambya dayon from akig to happy, pero wala ko paki. Wala sila kabalo kung ano ginaagyan ko subong. “Ninong lang ko ha!”

Last joke na tani bag-o ko magpadayon biyahe, pero nakabati ko sang singgit nga nagpadako mata kag nagpatindog ka balahibo ko. “Hoy, gago! Bulabog ka sa tulog namon. Puta ka!”

Nagbalikid ko. Damo nga tao gatindog sa tunga dalan, galantaw sa natabo. Mga tao sa pastilan kag mga tao nga nag-gwa sa ila balay. Pero may isa ka aktor nga nagkawat ka atensiyon ko. Tigulang nga nakaputi nga sando, naka-boxers, nakatsinelas, kag may laba—perteee ka laba—talom, kag tuktukon nga binangon sa kamot niya. Gasulong pakadto sa akon.

“Kaagahon gaparebolusyon ka nga gago ka! Patyon ta ka!”

Wasak. Ginpaandar ko liwat motor ko kag naghinay iwas sa duha ka love dogs. Nagbalikid ko sa ila kadali, kag nakapundo gulpi.

Ang itsura sang duha ka ido, bru. Iya ka . . . tao.

Iya ka tao!

Lola kag lolo. Pareho gatulok sa akon. Akig. Poker-faced except sa tulok nila nga lagkit kag sakit.

Gadasig na ginhawa ko kag gapalak na ko, pero wala ko oras i-process ang mga ido nga to kay may ara tao gusto maglabo sa ulo ko. Ginpabutyog ko ang motor pero na-outbalance ko kag nagdiretso salpok sa poste ka SOCOTECO sa kanto.

“Fuck! Ahhhh, tsk!”

Hapdi nga bakiras lang ang nabatyagan ko tungod sa adrenaline. Maayo lang wala naigo ulo ko. Confused na ko pero wala na ko naglaminday kay gapadulong na ang lalake. Panan-awan ko sa iya si Kamatayan kag gusto niya ko sugaton.

Ginpatindog ko ang motor. Gupi ang rim kag damo gasgas, pero wala ko labot kay gadalagan ang oras. Ginsakyan ko ang Rusi kag ginpindot ang starter.

Chik-chik-chik.

Huh? Wala nag-andar?

Chik-chik-chik-chik.

Fuck! Wala gaandar ang starter!

Nagbalikid ko liwat. Ara na ang mal-am banda sa mga human face nga ido, pero budlay i-explain ang natabo sunod. Gadiretso siya lakat, pero wala gatulok sa mga ido. Indi niya makita?

Sang nakaabot na ang mal-am sa mga ido, natapakan niya ang mga ini, kag gulpi ang mga ini nahimo nga itom nga aso. Nadula ang duha ka ido. Daw aso nga ginhampak ka vape.

Nabugto ang tulala ko kay gulpi nagdalagan ang mal-am pakadto sa akon. Gin-alsa niya ang tuktukon nga binangon niya. Wala japon gagana starter ko.

Gadasig na ginhawa ko. Gakurog mga kamot ko, kag ang heart ko daw malukso pagwa sa dughan. Fuck! Lord, please lang, buligi ko.

Galumaw-lumaw mata ko. Desperado. Kagat-labi. Pero gulpi ko naisip nga gamiton ang kick. Ginkuot ko sang tiil ang kick kag ginsipa.

Chak!

Wala? Liwat.

Chak!

Wala japon! Gadasig kag nabaw na ginhawa ko.

Lapit na lang gid siya. Last try . . .

Chak!

Brom-brom-broooom!

Yes! Nag-gana! Wala na ko nagbalikid. Diretso kambiya. Pwak! Nabatyagan ko pagbakol niya ka binangon. Ang buli ka motor ang naigo. Dako guro gisi ka leather nga cover.

Kung naulihi pa ko one second lang sigurado sakam to ulo ko kag galapta na utok ko.

“Indi magbalik di kay patyon ta kaaaa!” singgit sang tigulang nga laki.

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.