The Year I Last Saw Kel

It was one afternoon in 2019 and I was sitting inside McDanold’s, Espada. Under the fluorescent glow and incessant Love Niya ‘To Pero ‘Di Ako tune, I dunk fries into a sundae nearing its soup stage. In front of me, Kel, who I’ve known since high school, plunged a plastic fork into the McChicken’s meat. He tore away a chunk with his mouth, hardly chewing it before gulping it.

Now, we were in college and had no direction but to eat McDanold’s after class. I stared at Kel who has gone pudgy over the years with his unkempt stubble and hair in a soppy mess like the McSpaghetti children spin over and over on their forks. Our uniforms, passable white polos and black pants, reeked of sweat. Kel’s tummy was asking for freedom. It bulged against that one button doing its best to keep it together.

A pair of fingers snapped in my face.

“You’re not listening.” He said, his mouth filled with chicken and rice.

“What?”

“I said I thought I saw my dad sitting there. He waved at me!” He pointed to an empty seat behind me.

“No one’s there… You’re sure it was him?”

“What?” He looked back at the seat. “He was just there a minute ago! I’m sure it was him – well, it looked like him…”

“Maybe it’s just someone who looks like him. This is your third chicken for today.”

“I see no problem with eating more chicken.”

Kel took out his iPhone 6s from his pocket. There was an extra coating of grease on the screen. He was silent as he scrolled through the barrage of messages on the notifications tab. His eyes began to well up. He held in a sob which might as well have been a dying goat’s bleep. He put his phone down.

“Dad’s in the hospital.”

After that meal, we rode a jeepney waiting on the sidewalk. Although the hospital was located in the same city, it took us more than an hour to arrive outside the emergency room. His older brother, Ken, was there waiting for him. Ken was somewhat taller than Kel. They almost looked alike except Ken was thinner and he had his hair shaved off in acceptance of his looming baldness.

“Kel, they say he’s not gonna last long.” Ken wiped a tissue on his forehead.

“But why? What’s happening to him?” Kel asked.

“We found him unconscious. Mom was calling him for merienda, he wasn’t answering so I searched for him. I saw him facedown on the carpet in the bedroom.”

“I thought he was okay, he was in McDa earlier!”

“You saw him? You’re sure it was him?”

“Well, it looked like him… He was sitting near us – He even waved.” Kel shrugged.

Ken turned to me.  “Did you see him too?’

“No, the seat was empty.” I shook my head.

“It’s starting.” Ken dabbed his head with the tissue again. “I don’t know how to explain this.”

“Can you just tell me what’s happening?” Kel asked.

“Kel, you better see him before he goes. It’s not my place to say.”

The brothers disappeared into the emergency room. After a while, Kel texted me to go home since they will take all night. I said I’ll see him tomorrow in class. There was no reply. Maybe he needed some space.

Compared to our travel to the hospital, my ride home was smoother than usual. For once, I didn’t have to chase after a jeepney nor did I have to sweat out a gallon before I reached the street where my house was. It was an unusual evening. Everything was quiet.

Kel didn’t attend class the next day. I texted him during lunch time and to my surprise, he replied immediately with news of his father’s wake. They were having it at home. Instead of going to McDanold’s like the usual, I spent the afternoon commuting to Kel’s place which was located at the edge of Pasag.

The living room was packed with people on monobloc chairs when I arrived. They all faced an open casket as if they were hoping for Kel’s dad to become the next lord of salvation. A large candle was next to the casket. Its flame languidly danced as the wax dripped by the hour.

The chandelier’s light washed over the room. The shadows seemed to divide and grow under the chairs. It was almost impossible to determine who were people and shadows at that point. A figure separated from the group and as it got closer, I saw Kel wearing a black polo and pants. He had his right hand stuck inside his pocket. There was an attempt at being clean shaven but there were thistles sticking out from his neck and chin. His hair was in a ponytail but still stuck in sweaty clumps on his face.

“Oh, how was class?” He said so normally as if his father wasn’t in a casket behind him.

“Still the same. We just have an assignment due tomorrow. You coming tomorrow?”

“Nah, I have to be here until the end of the week.”

“How do you feel?”

“I don’t know… It feels surreal. So many people!” He said.  “I didn’t even know dad was this famous.”

Ken entered the room with their mother. They brought with them small cups of coffee and ensaymada in shrink-wrap which they handed out to everyone. His mother was a small woman who wore a plain black dress. Her dark hair was cropped short. She smiled at the visitors despite the gloomy reception in the room. Ken was dressed in a polo shirt a little big for his size. His eyes betrayed his stoic movements. They were red and he wiped them occasionally with a handkerchief.

“Come see dad.” Kel said and I followed him.

We passed by the people, half of them appeared bulky with either undercuts or buzzcuts. They were like thugs people would avoid in bars. Although old age had gotten to them already, they were greyer and seemed smaller in stature. They all had an insignia of a boar’s face burned into the back of their hand. One of them saw me staring at it and I walked faster, making sure not to lose Kel in the crowd.  

I realized how tall of a person Kel’s dad was. The casket was huge up close. It was similar to carved out ivory angels delicately placed on a pedestal in churches. His hands were on his chest. His hand on top of the other bore the same insignia as his visitors. On the casket, there were different books and pamphlets. They were brown and crispy. If anyone would touch it, they might crumble like graham crackers in a sad mango float.

“My condolences.” I uttered to Kel and his dad.

My stomach growled as an afterthought.

“You should eat.” Kel chuckled.

“Uhm, I feel fine. I’ll leave in a while.” I clutched my bag for emphasis.

“We have too much food in the kitchen. You can go to my room and I’ll bring food.” He said.

Kel’s bedroom door lurched whenever someone opened it. It was obvious when someone comes in and out even when he slept. Being a random guest for so long, I’ve gotten used to it. But when I entered his room, there was a different air to it. Not because it was dusty and there were probably fungi growing on the walls or because the aircon was on for god knows how long. I couldn’t explain it myself. But there was a presence in it.

I dropped my bag near the door and began looking around. His poster of an anime girl was hanging by one corner. Any moment now it would fall down. Polos and pants were strewn to a side. His bed was a disaster of comforter and pillows thrown around randomly. The only sound came from the hum of the aircon and the whirring of his computer. I sat down in front of the desktop. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except for some books stacked behind the monitor. I plucked one out.

There were countless words I could not understand on the page. But one sentence was lazily smudged out by an eraser: The current host must choose an heir from his offspring.  I flipped through to see more before a snap made me drop the book.

The poster had fallen to the ground. I walked closer to the wall it once stuck to. The boar’s face stared back at me. I picked up the book, expecting to find an explanation about the boar but it was pages and pages of words. The book was maroon and had no title. As I opened it, I heard the lurch of the door. I turned around and saw Kel holding a plate of rice and cordon bleu. We looked at each other. He placed the food on the desk and moved to speak but I cut him off.

“What’s all this?!” I pointed to the insignia then the book.

“Why did you touch my stuff?!”

“Uh… it was lying around.”

“Behind the monitor!”

“Look, it was too obvious of a spot. What did you expect?”

“I didn’t want you to see it.”

“Find a better hiding spot in this mess.”

“You should go home before they find out.”

“Who is ‘they’? The people downstairs?”

“Yeah. You’re not supposed to know. You would be dead if they found out.” He lifted the back of his hand and showed me the same insignia. The wound was fresh, still pink and swollen.

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. Just eat your food then leave.”

He snatched the book away from me.

I didn’t say another word. I took the plate filled with rice and cordon bleu. I pushed aside the pillows on his bed before sitting down to eat. Kel fished out the other books behind the monitor. There were at least five of them, all in maroon. The other books had yellowing pages and not a single one had a title in them. Kel seemed different. Confident and strict, in fact. Although he still looked and smelled like a slob, he was making an effort to be a new person.

He set the books on the floor and sat at his computer idly clicking on a game filled with anime girls. Their tiny voices filled the room. People might assume we were watching hentai but who cares, right? That was a better scenario than what he was implying earlier.

“So what’s going to happen now?” I asked, chewing the last of the cordon bleu.

“I don’t know. Just don’t tell anyone what you saw.”

“Okay then…” I stood up.

His attention was still on the monitor. Slowly, I walked backwards. I took in the whole view of the room. It felt larger, dangerous even. Maybe if I stayed a longer, I would find out but there was this urge to just go. I casually slid the topmost book from the pile and then got my bag. He didn’t notice anything. His face was still glued to his game and the crowd of anime girls screaming on it.  I held up my bag and hid the book behind it.

“I’ll see you next week then.” I said along with the lurch of the bedroom door.

“Hey.” He said.

I froze. Did he notice?

“Be careful, okay?”

I nodded then closed the door.

I opened my bag and wedged the book between my papers and other books. I went down the stairs. The visitors were still seated in front of the casket. They were conducting a prayer in a different language. Their chants resonated through the living room.

Ken stood from his seat and met me at the base of the stairs.

“You going so soon?” He said.

“Uh-huh… Don’t wanna be home late. We have class tomorrow.” I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, my condolences.”

“You take care, okay?”

“Take care of yourself too…”

Ken stopped at that statement but he was able to muster a wave. In order to break out of the awkwardness, I hurried out the front door.  

When I got out of the gate, I ran towards the main road and got on the first jeepney that stopped. The only thought that I had was to see this book. Whatever it was, I had to know. Why did Kel sound so grim? Why did Ken react that way? Nothing is making sense.

In bed, I opened the book. It was different compared to the other one. This was older and the spine needed some support. There were more images. It was a mix of languages and there were only a few which I recognized like English and Tagalog. The rest was a blur even as I tried to understand the Spanish parts. The boar was on every page. It looked like it came with the words on the page like a commander and his legion of the damned.

The sketches made a little more sense as I progressed. From what I understood, there was a small boar and he grew into a large beast. He lived in the forest until one day a man found him and burned him and his home. A drawing of a green blob represented his self. He found the man and pushed himself into his mouth until he successfully possessed him. The man would go on killing sprees during certain times in a year.

On another page, it showed the man with a family. The boar transferred to his child and the man was dead afterwards. After the sketches, there were more text than images. I couldn’t make out what it meant anymore.

I blacked out.

I was absent in first period. When I entered the classroom for the next subject, people were so shocked to see me.

“Oh my god!! You’re alive!” One classmate said.

“We thought you were dead!” Another one said.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know? There was an explosion at Kel’s house ah!” She said.

“That’s not true, I was there yesterday.”

“The news said it happened at midnight.” She brought her phone to my face.

 The headlines showed Kel’s house in ruins.

Family and visitors at the wake did not survive.

I had to reread that line.

Something heavy in my gut started to form and I rushed outside. In the restroom, I stared at myself. Did Kel save me? Did Ken know what was going to happen? Was it an accident? I don’t know anymore.

I skipped my classes for the rest of the day. I found myself in McDanold’s, observing my sundae become soup and dipping all the fries into it. Kel and his family were gone. And it all happened at his father’s wake. If I had stayed there, would I have been able to stop it? I sighed and took the book out from my bag. When I flipped it open, the pages flew out from the spine and crumbled on the floor.

In front of me, there was no one.

Just an empty seat.


JULIENNE MAUI CASTELO MANGAWANG finished BA Asian Studies at the University of Santo Tomas. She is taking up her MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines — Diliman. Her poems are published in 聲韻詩刊 Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, ALPAS Journal, Inklette Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus. Her interests include esoteric practices, Japanese studies, and Jungian archetypes. She likes sleeping but sleeping doesn’t like her. At the moment, she is tending to a garden in Makati — anticipating vegetables to be harvested soon and for the hydrangea to be, once again, in full bloom.

One Day More

24 August 1896

We’ve been found.

My blood rushes to my ears with every step taking me closer to where I need to be. I glance left and right on the corners of muddy Quiapo, ever aware of the guardia civil lurking in nearly every street corner - loitering like landmarks and checkpoints dressed in the pale blue of their uniforms. The milk jugs on my shoulder have been empty since noon when the sun shone oppressively on the fields and streets of Manila. I have half a mind to leave them alone on a deserted street corner or feign clumsiness and have them break against a stone on the streets. I shift their weight evenly on my shoulders and eye three guardia civil checking papers. I balance the pole on my left shoulder, holding it such that the skin on my forearm conceals the scar of my initiation. 

I stand motionless for a moment, positioning myself behind the growing crowd of people eager to get past the guardias and get on with their lives. I could hear the murmurs of the people, their whispers, their anger, and annoyance at the sudden strictness of life in Manila. The Cuerpo de Vigilancia was everywhere. You didn’t know if you could tell your brother a secret or the priests a confession under threat of being outed, being imprisoned, tortured, and made to confess for crimes that you had never committed. The pole and the weight of the empty jugs dig into my shoulder. I stand and wait in hopes of getting through the guardias and further, much further, north where my brothers were waiting - where we would know what would happen next. 

Thunder rolls and lightning cracks from the bay and darkness lay on the horizon. The man being inspected lays out his cedula, confirming his origins, business, and everything that the guardia needed to know. The man in pale blue shoves the cedula into his hands, causing a tear on the flimsy paper. The guardia instructs him to lift the sleeves of his barong which prompted the man to grumble and begrudgingly comply. I look at his arms and see it clean, scarless, a man who had never had to work other than for the inheritance of his father and his fathers before him. The guardia tells him to get moving and return to Binondo before the curfew and there would be no more trouble. 

The crowd shuffles as people begin to shove and push, eager to escape the mud of Quiapo and the rain that had begun to creep in closer. The grumbles become expressed agitation as it devolves into people shouting their loyalties to Spain, that they were good and peace-loving subjects of the Crown, they were not Katipunan, not trouble makers, somos no infieles, somos no filibusteros, hindi cami Mason, huag niyo caming pagbintangan, ualang Katipunan sa amin dito. 

Cowards, I think to myself. It was trouble we were causing, yes, but is a life under the thumb of the Kapitan-Heneral, under the thumb of the cura, and all their abuses worth it? Do we remain indios, born to serve, born to slave away, from cradle to grave? 

I grip the pole of milk jugs tighter, hiding my anger and frustration, trying to mix with the growing chaos of the forming mob. A man behind me takes to shoving and the milk jugs shatter on a rock embedded in the muddy street. I find myself on my knees and staring at the broken pottery of the jugs that once made sure that I had enough to eat.

The crowd of people around me is silenced by the sound of shattering pots, I look up and see the angry face of the man who had shoved me to the ground. His face forms into a sneer and curses at me for being careless. If it had been any other day, even a few hours ago when the sun beat down hard on all the peoples of these Islands, I would have challenged his anger and for tarnishing my dignity by destroying my means of living - but that was before. 

I can feel the eyes of the crowd gazing at us, shaking their heads, and looking at me as if in pity. Their attention returns to the guardias as they make haste to dissipate the crowd. I begin gathering the broken pottery shards on the mud and find a way out of the mess where I found myself. One of the guardias begins wading his way through the crowd to see the commotion. I seize a jagged piece of pottery and scratch it hard and deep on the skin along my scar, feeling both the pain of the pottery and the relief of a possible escape. I pick myself up and stare blankly at the man as the blood flows from my arm, staining my camisa and chinos with spots and streaks of bright red.

The dark clouds had come upon us and the coolness of the wind had begun to fall on a dying day in the last week of August. The sun was far beyond and behind the clouds, casting an overcast light on the bay and all the ships that floated upon it. The drizzle of the thunderstorm had begun to pepper the houses, cathedral, and shops in Quiapo. Thunder rolled as the guardias began to inspect quicker and haphazardly, eager to leave the rain and the mud of the streets like the mob that had formed around them. Arms were simply turned and cedulas waving in the air a moment ago were once again tucked into pockets. I clench my fist, pulsating between a hard and soft-grip trying to make blood gush faster out of the wound. The bamboo pole lies limp on the ground and I gaze upon it feeling sorry. I had no use for it anymore.

“What happened here?” the guardia asks

“This man,” the man behind me says, eager to explain, “is careless and tripped on a rock, shattering his milk jugs.”

I look at the man once again and feel the blood and anger rush past my ears and into my head. I squat down and pick up the bamboo pole, gripping it tightly to swing at the man’s head. But no, there have been enough delays.

“Forgive me, senyor,” I say, my anger still boiling over, “I have been out since dawn selling carabao milk.”

“That’s enough,” the guardia says, fixing his hat to better repel the rain from his face, “show me your cedulas and the undersides of your forearms.”

I retrieve my cedula under the few pesos of a day’s earnings and present it to the guardia as he hastily reads it and pushes it against our chests. We present our forearms, the other man clean and pasty white against the upturned sleeves of his barong, and mine - the right, thin and hard and brown from days of walking endless dirt streets and staving off hunger, and the left, the bloodied twin of the right. 

“What happened here?” the guardia asks.

“It scraped on the broken shards when I fell.”

“Clean it and go, you have a long ways to go where you are headed, be there before the church bells ring, and there won’t be any more trouble.”

My mind freezes for a moment, did he know where I was headed? Do the guardia civil know and all is for naught? Are they going to let us gather in the dark fields and trees of Kalookan to slaughter us like pigs without dignity or honor? Was the Revolution aborted even before it began? 

I smile softly, pretending to wipe the blood dripping on my arm on my camisa, and say “Salamat.” The word coming out softer than I had imagined. 

I begin making my way past the guardias and begin heading north, walking faster without the milk jugs and using the bamboo pole as a walking stick. The dark blue bruised twilight had begun to drape over the walled city, the towns, and all of Manila and Kamaynilaan as the thunderstorm began to rain harder on all those under it and making the humid day feel colder and the air thicker. I wipe the blood off with the pouring rain and pull my straw hat harder down into my head, trying to pretend that my entire body is not drenched in the growing strength of the rain. 

I take a deep breath and pace my walking in an attempt to understand the world I was now headed into headfirst. I had heard about them in a small newspaper being passed around a few months ago, I listened as someone read the pages aloud and felt my mind wake up in righteous anger against the Spaniards who treat us without justice in our own land. 

I walk as the town quickly fades into fields and the twilight edges darker and darker as torches and candles are lit in the nipa huts by the road. There are people walking with haste, eager, perhaps, to get home to their families where they will eat rice with salted fish, say their prayers, and sleep to get up the next day. Will there still be tomorrow? Will there be another tomorrow like today and all the days in the centuries past where the indio is condemned to be lesser, to be less than he can be, to be condemned to servitude and into the fires of hell for being a victim to the circumstances of his birth and the color of his skin and the language he speaks? 

Children play in the rain with reckless abandon as the light and heat of the afternoon are banished by the creeping night. I walk on as the children are called back to their huts by their mothers. Further on, the men begin to walk back from the fields, sheathing their bolos and finding shade to light their sigarilyos at the end of a long day. I look in the distance and see the silhouette of Arayat disappear into the darkness. All the light that guides me is now the light of fires and candles and their reflections on the wet and muddy road still being pelted by rain from the heavens. The blood from the cut I gave myself has been washed away by the rain, leaving the scar from the initiation visible and the fresh-cut pale and pink after the blood had been washed. It didn’t matter anymore, I don’t think anyone is looking now, especially in this growing blanket of darkness. 

I walk on northward. Northward until you find people who know the Old Lady Sora, my comrade had told me. It was dark now and nobody knew who or where the old lady is. I find a boulder by the path and perch myself on it, taking a small break and lifting my head to the heavens and catching the rain with my mouth. I feel my knees shake and I tell them that now is not the time to lose resolve. There is still a ways to go and still so far to walk to a place we only vaguely know. Down the road I spot a carabao walking with his master sitting atop the cart that the beast is pulling, the master beats the beast with a reed, urging the beast forward and directing him where he should go. I catch his eye as he passes by and he commands the beast to stop.

“Hijo, the night has caught you, what are you doing on the road?” he asks me

“I am going somewhere, senyor, do you happen to know where the Old Lady Sora lives?” I reply

“Not too far from here, hijo, what business do you have with the old lady?”

“I just need to be there tonight, senyor.”

“Hmm,” he raises his eyebrows at me as he eyes my presence up and down. He lights a fat roll of tobacco, “the church bells have already rung, the guardia civil are going to arrest anyone without the proper papers, you will spend the night in Bilibid if you are seen, hijo.”

“I know, senyor, that is why I must get to the house of the Old Lady, I must be there.”

He looks at me for a moment as the embers of his sigarilyo glow bright orange like a ripe tangerine. He chews on the other end and takes a deep breath. 

“I know what you are, hijo, and I want no part of it. But the Virgin Mary will curse me and my family if I do not help a young man I see in need. Get on, there is room in the cart for you.” 

“Many thanks, senyor, the Virgin bless you.”

“Thank me when we get there, hijo, I will not face the garrote for you or your comrades.”

I get on the cart and find myself sitting with empty baskets and sacks of rice as my fellow passengers. I say a prayer of thanks to San Cristobal for the kindness he has spared me. I close my eyes to rest and say another for the Blessed Virgin, who has afforded me the charity of this man. I hear the crack of the reed and the carabao begins to walk forward and the cart rattles with the bumps of the road. I sit myself up against the side of the cart and attempt to calm my heart, closer and closer to the heart of Kalookan, my fate becomes irretrievably changed. 

“Why do you charge into your death, hijo? The night has come and they will catch you or shoot you, whatever makes them happier.”

I look at the man and stay quiet. If the guardia knew, if the Cuerpo knew everything that needed to be known, then there was no point in fighting our fates, we would be slaughtered like animals. I bite my lip and take a deep breath. I close my eyes hard and let out a sigh. As the darkness crept into the world around me, doubt has begun to seize my resolve. A warm breeze from the west blows at us and the man hands me a thin sigarilyo.

“It will calm your nerves, hijo, I’ve seen that look before.”

He hands me matches and I light the thin, tightly rolled tobacco leaves and taste the strong smoke its earthy flavor. I look out the cart and see the disparate nipa huts lit by fire and candles until they fade into the horizon. If all things happen the way they are being pushed now, these fields will become battlefields strewn with bodies of indio and Spaniard alike. Worse, the Spaniards will take the Ilocanos and Bikolanos and Bisayas from around these Islands to fight their own brothers and the Spaniards will not need to get their hands dirty. I let the smoke burn my tongue for a moment before letting it loose into the wind.

“It is an honor to die for this country, senyor.”

“Enough sons of the country have died fighting the Spaniards, we are simply too weak, too feeble, and too broken to fight them.”

“We have become one now, senyor, this time it will be different.”

He does not respond.

“How did you know, senyor? Do you know of the gathering?” I continue.

“It is where my eldest has run off to. He is there now with your brothers, running off to their deaths, to hell, to have their names stricken off by San Pedro,” he replies.

He does a sign of the cross, holding the roll of tobacco with his lips, and clutches his agimat that bulges through his thin camisa.

“You are our brother too, senyor. We fight for all our brothers in these Islands.”

“I am not one of you. I want none of your trouble and I only wish that my son had seen my sense and stayed with his mother. I pray you will see my sense, hijo, enough have died.”

“And more will die if we don’t, senyor.”

“And if you lose, hijo, you will bring unspeakable suffering to the indios you claim to fight for.”

The cart hits a rock on the path and I feel the thought of dying and losing sobering. I had been so drunk on the idea of victory that the thought of losing had never occurred to me. I tap the ash of the sigarilyo and bring it back up to my mouth, taking another mouthful. I feel the hit of the tobacco and finish it quickly, letting the smoke burn my tongue for the speed I smoked it. As I threw what remained of the sigarilyo, I feel the dizziness and the growl of my stomach. I had failed to realize how hungry I was. 

“They will never listen to us, senyor, the sons of the country have gone straight to Madrid and no one would listen to them. They were too short, too brown, and too poor to be listened to, they could paint the greatest pictures or write the greatest books, but nothing will change the way they think, they see you and me as rats, and if they can exile the great Rizal, what will they do to us little folk, us poor folk.”

“This country has seen too much blood and we want none of it. The people you claim to fight for want none of it.”

“Nothing will change unless it is their blood that has been spilled to water these fields.”

“Do you think you can take on the walls of Intramuros? On their guns and cannons? Hijo, all you had with you was a bamboo pole when I saw you! Do your brothers have special agimats that can make you invisible? Bulletproof? Blade-proof? What witchcraft have you summoned to make a victory against them possible?”

I bit my tongue, I had no response. It was true. I have no knowledge of guns. All my balangay could muster were the bolos we used for the fields and bamboo spears we could make in a few minutes. We had no guns or powder or bullets. With the Cuerpo everywhere, who knows what they know, perhaps my suspicions were right, that they knew, and they were going to slaughter us. 

I feel a bead of sweat making its way down my forehead, it was cold and the wet of the rain soaking my camisa clung heavily on my chest. The glow of the waning quarter moon began to shine on the fields as the storm clouds faded. It had risen considerably from the horizon, it must have been two hours since I had escaped the guardia in Quiapo, one since the church bells rang, and who knows how many more to Kalookan . It was silent for a while with the groans of the carabao and the creak and wheels of the cart perforating the silence that had enveloped us. 

“What is your name, senyor?” I say, breaking the silence.

“Saturnino, and yours, hijo?”

“Mariano, Mariano de la - ”

“No, don’t tell me. If you decide to go where you say you are going, then the guardias cannot find your family if nobody knows your full name.”

“Why are you so cautious, old man?”

“I saw the priests killed, hijo. I saw the gunpowder flare from Cavite across the bay and I saw the priests killed. Those priests fought for the eternal soul of the indio and none of it mattered to any of them. There has been enough.”

“And yet you bring me to the house where the Katipunan gathers in the dead of night.”

“Yes, I am doing that. For charity and the Blessed Virgin, the sin is not on my head if you willingly walk to your death.”

“There are greater sins, senyor.”

“I have lived long enough to know that all sins are the same, it is what we must suffer for the wretched of this earth.”

“Do we not have a say in how much we suffer? I see you are a farmer, can you imagine if you no longer have to give the Crown’s share? Or if you can finally own your land?”

“I no longer entertain myself on such fantasies, hijo. This is the hand we were dealt with, it is what we must live with.”

“But we can change that hand, senyor, our suffering does not need to be permanent. We can fight for what is good or die trying.”

He makes no reply and gives his attention to the sigarilyo for a while, leaving the two of us in the silence perforated by the creaking of the cart and the moans of the beast. I watch the world pass by as an endless field. I can hear the sighs of the old man mixed in with indecipherable grumbling.

The cart stops.

“This is where I leave you, Mariano, and bless your soul. Bless all your souls. May your deaths come swiftly and may the Lord have mercy on you.”

I can feel the cold of the camisa seeping into my body. No. It is more than the cold from the wetness of the fabric, it is a cold that is seeping into my bones, into my soul. My shaking is not from the cold, it is a trembling in my soul, and indecision and fear and terror of all the terrible things that will happen to me and to this country if we lose. After all, was there a chance of winning? To breach the thick walls of the city? Did we have the guns, the men, the agimats, and all sorts of witchery to save us? I sit unmoving on the cart and I sense that Saturnino can feel my hesitation. He turns back to look at me and a catch a glimpse of his tired face against the darkness. 

“It is not a sin to want to save yourself, Mariano,” he says.

“I am afraid. I feel that it is all for nothing and I want to run, but I feel that it is also a sin to abandon my brothers.”

“You cannot save them when the battles begin.”

“No, but I can die with them, if my death means another will live, then I should be there.” 

“And yet you run.”

“I have not yet run.”

“But we cannot stay here all night, Mariano. Go forth to your death or hide and save yourself, but we cannot stay here.”

A breeze blows in from the west. The wetness of the rain still pouring far away invades my nose but the warmth of the world has returned even in the light drizzle of wherever I am now. I step off the cart and back into the mud of the world. Taking a deep breath I step towards Saturnino.

“Many thanks, senyor.”

“Do not thank me, I may as well have brought you closer to your death.”

“You will live to see this country free, Saturnino, your son will give you victory.”

His face turns into scorn and for a moment I fear that he will hit me with the reed he has been using to beat the beast. His scorn breaks and he looks down at the ground - his anger breaking into sadness. He reaches back and begins untying something from his neck. 

“This is the Santissima Trinidad, find my son and give it to him, please. His name is Esteban Chavez and he will know when he sees it that he is forgiven. There is no swaying the lot of you so I may as well give him some peace of mind when his time comes.”

He drops the agimat into my hands and I tie it around my own neck.

“I will give it to your son, senyor, I promise you this.”

“Go straight this path and take the third left. You will know when you are there.”

“Thank you again, senyor.”

He looks at me for a moment and turns away, directing the beast away from my direction. He begins to take his journey away from all the coming trouble. I stand for a moment and watch him go away as the sound of the cart grows softer and softer. I was alone once again. 

The cacophony of crickets fills my ears. The rain has awoken them. Joining their symphonies are the croaks of the frogs and the distant crowing of chicken and the howls of the dogs. I trudge on forward, armed with a bamboo pole I realize that I’ve passed the point of no return. I could have turned back in Quiapo, gone back to my parents, and gave them a hug - I only needed to face the wrath of my father for having broken the jugs. Or they might not have broken at all. I could have gone with Saturnino to wherever he lived and stayed for the night. But I didn’t. Here was I, charging into the unknown - into the darkness of the night in hopes of a bright and new morning.

The wind rustles the leaves of the trees lining the path. The waning quarter moon shines with the might it is given and dimly illuminates the world around me. Saturnino is right, these fields will be bloody in the coming struggle, but there is no life in staying under the thumb of those that rule over us. It was a risk worth taking, there was no life living as we had.

Further on down the path, a figure emerges from the dark of the trees and I feel my heart stop. The pale blue of his sleeves was instantly recognizable. My fears had been right. They knew and it was over. Except it didn’t have to be. Taking a deep breath, I walk briskly and quietly, avoiding the silver light of the moon. I grip the bamboo pole tightly, wishing that it was sharp or bladed like a spear or a bolo. The closer I got to the guardia, my heartbeat quickened and thumped harder. It beat so hard that I felt afraid that he would hear the thumping of my chest and end its beating by running my heart through with his bolo. I continue walking and tell my mind to quiet, to calm down, that if we were earnest about doing what we need to do, then this is what was needed to be done - and it has to be done with no hesitation. 

The figure stops for a moment and turns his sleeves up. He lowers his pants to take a piss and I run as quickly and as quietly over to him, swinging the bamboo pole to his head with all the strength I could muster. It hits the back of his head with a sickening thump and he is brought to his knees, fumbling for the bolo on his side. I hit him again, swinging down before he got back up. He turns to lie on his back with his bolo in hand, ready to defend against my bamboo pole. I raise the pole to strike a third time but move back to avoid the swing of the blade. He uses the opportunity to get back up and we watch each other through the perforated darkness, waiting to see who will strike first. 

I move and find myself drenched in the pale light of the moon. 

“Drop your weapon and no more harm will come to you,” he says in the darkness.

“I know what you are, you traitor to the race. I am not so naive to believe you. Tell me what you know, what all of you know.”

“I know nothing of what you speak of, brother,” he tells me in reply.

“Do not act ignorant, what do you know of the Katipunan?”

At the mention of the Katipunan, he begins to move closer towards me. I grip the pole tighter and begin whispering the Hail Mary. It was over. This was it. If my sacrifices ensure the safety of the Katipunan, then let it be so. He moves closer and I swing the pole at his head with all the strength I could muster only for it to break at the blade of his bolo. I finish one last Hail Mary and close my eyes in surrender to death. His bolo swings back over to me and I fall back to the wet dirt. 

I close my eyes and wait for the inevitable. I wait for the coldness of a blade, the piercing of flesh, and the dying of the light. I wait for a moment that feels like an eternity. Was I in purgatory already? Did the soul move that quickly? Could I appear as an apparition to my parents to let them know I have died? Instead, I open my eyes to see the arms of the guardia outstretched towards me, guiding me up.

“Spare me none of your mercy and get it over with, or do you wish for me to die on my knees like a slave, perhaps standing so you could say you are good and noble and killed a man with his dignity?”

He sighs and takes my hand. For a moment, I felt as though my spirit has left my body. He gives me a handshake and from the broken darkness, he shows the scar on his left forearm. He was one of us.

“You are late, brothers,” a voice says from the shadows.

The guardia turns as I get up from the dirt. My head buzzed hard and harmonized with the incessant noise of the crickets and their symphony. We both walk over to the voice in the shadows. The guardia shakes his hand and I follow suit. 

“Forgive me, brother,” I say to the guardia.

“It was foolish of me to continue wearing the uniform going to where I was going, please, the fault is mine.”

We follow the man as he guides us through the bushes and trees. We come to a clearing where a bonfire illuminates a multitude of men. Their whispers vanish with the blowing of the wind. The fire illuminates the faces of men. They were gaunt, angry, impatient, agitated, and, others still, determined. We come over to a tree where a man leans. Our guide walks over and shakes his hand and the two of us follow, letting him know that we are with them.

“What is happening?” yet my question falls on deaf ears as a silence drapes over the camp like a thick, suffocating blanket. A man comes out of a nipa hut along with a few others at the center of the gathering.

“What are they saying? What has been decided?” I ask.

“Take out your cedula, brother,” the man on the tree says.

The figure at the center raises a small rectangle of paper and proceeds to rip it to shreds. It must be the Supremo. It has begun, it has all begun, the moment I rip this cedula to shreds there is no going back. The shouting is louder as the sound of paper tearing rips through the quiet of midnight. I raise my cedula, the paper which enslaved me to the Crown. We are no longer indios, we are now Tagalogs, the true owners of these Islands, and every man will be a King. I can hear it clearly now, I can hear every man here committing their lives to the cause. There will never be a day like today and there will be no more days like all the yesterdays of the past. I throw the shredded pieces of paper to the ground and raise my fists, joining the cries of the most noble sons of the country.

“Mabuhay! Mabuhay! Viva la Independencia! Viva la Revolucion! Mabuhay ang Haring Bayang Katagalugan! Viva! Viva!”


Noel Mozart Diaz is a graduate of the Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences, majoring in history with a minor in political science at the University of the Philippines Baguio. He is also the former Supremo of the UP Kalipunan ng mga Mag-Aaral sa Kasaysayan (UP KAMALAYAN). He runs a blog in Medium.com where he writes short fiction, poems, and essays.

To the End of the Night

I began the day by going to a hospital to see the newborn, the ill, and the dying. Then I roamed around the malls to observe the frantic bustle of the workforce and its consumers. And before dusk fell, I visited a nursing home where, under the pretext that what I was doing was for a school project, I had been granted permission to talk with a few destitute.

Their stories were among the saddest I had heard, especially from the fifty-year old man, who was so gaunt his eyes stuck out of their sockets as if they were bones. He told me he had no family to remember at all. All he remembered was that he was a child left alone in the streets to survive. Then he was picked up in the streets when he became an old cripple and was asked to live in the home.

When he was still living in the streets, he had thought of killing himself by leaping, despite his disability, onto a rushing vehicle. He wished for a quick, certain death, but was never able to do so. It was not the fear of death that stopped him; it was the fear of coming out of it alive, even for a moment. He decided to wait out his time, which he certainly felt would not be long now.

In return, I admitted to him I almost did the same thing as he had planned when I was eight years old, only it was thwarted, if I may say so, by fate.

He asked whether I was joking or not.

My father, god knows why, stopped me when I was on my way out of the door. He saw I was holding a piece of paper in my hand and asked me to hand it over. I just stood and said nothing—so he snatched it off my hand. The look of horror in his eyes as he read the letter roused within me my own horror. He screamed what the hell was I thinking. I had the urge—ironically, of self-preservation—to run and carry out what I had set out to do before it was too late. But he cried out. Tears of anger burned his old eyes as he went berserk. My wretched father hit me so hard with his heavy hand that I was knocked unconscious.

Since then, my parents almost never let me out of their sight. I never spoke a word about it and went on with life as usual as though nothing had happened, and that seemed to worsen their horror. Two years later, my father died of a heart attack. I felt nothing at all toward his passing, only for my mother, who had kept on crying and asking me to be a good boy from now on and promise to God I would never leave her alone. For my poor mother’s sake, I decided to forget all about the plan.

I thanked all the destitute and the personnel of the home for letting me have their time. The old people sent me off with big smiles that shone light on their wrinkles. Two of the old ladies even stood up, although not without assistance, to give me a hug and told me “to come back next time with my girlfriend.” Such human warmth could only come from the deepest sorrows. From what I had gathered, they couldn’t remember the last time someone—neither their own children, relatives, nor friends—had visited them. It seemed that nobody cared to know whether they were still alive. This was perhaps the reason why they looked the same when I looked at them: they all bore the desolate look of the abandoned.

At the gate, the guard, who immediately struck me as strange, told me that what I did was heartwarming. I had no idea how he could say that, for I never saw him when I was inside the building or, for that matter, even when I entered the home. “Till next time,” he said to me, grinning. His teeth were unbelievably clean and white, yet his face looked a lot paler than the old people’s. I was further taken aback when I noticed that his eyes never blinked at least once.

I stepped out quickly. I could hear the wrought-iron gate creaking as it was closed and felt the guard’s gaze following me from behind. It was unnerving. I was glad I was out. I had an early dinner at a fast-food joint and afterward wrote in contemplation.

Then I continued with what I had set out to do. I rode a jeepney to Fuente Osmeña Rotunda to spend what was left of the afternoon.

In the silvery sheet of the sky, the sun hung low like a dimly lit lantern over the buildings, and along the cable lines and billboards perched a flock of little black birds chirping in tunes. The dusk was beautiful. I lit a cigarette and walked alongside the sea of crowd.

Up ahead, I saw one who was not moving. It was a baldheaded man, barefooted, slightly stooped, clothed in filthy rags, standing still in the sidewalk. The people passing by him covered their noses and walked as fast as they could. I looked at him and thought he looked familiar. He was as gaunt as the old man I had met earlier at the home who used to live in the streets, and they seemed to wear the same face. I was curious, so I went to him and stood beside him.

I could hear him muttering and smell his foul breath in the warm air. Then he turned his head, held my gaze, and asked me to spare him a few coins for dinner. I nodded at his old, hideous face, which was as soiled as the streets.

“Thank you, young man,” he said. “I’m going home now.”

I wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but he began limping down the busy, jagged sidewalks and soon disappeared into the marching crowd. I lit another cigarette and continued strolling down Osmeña Boulevard to Colon Street.

Then I felt a sleepiness brought on by the dusk slowly setting over the city like a blanket. The headlights, lampposts, traffic lights, signboards, and lanterns glowed brighter when I reached the downtown, and the first stars glimmered in the night sky.

Walking past the ever-swelling throng of crowd that clogged the sidewalks, stores, and night markets, I finally stepped inside Basilica del Santo Niño, where I was met by smiling white-haired ladies in red and yellow dresses selling red and yellow candles. I softly shook my head as I passed them by.

Thousands of devotees had filled the basilica grounds to the brim. With the seats and bleachers all taken, the rest remained standing, facing the altar set outside. The basilica was aglow under the darkening sky. From its old, carven Spanish stone walls clung ropes of white and yellow lights, which lit the faces of the devotees awaiting the start of the mass.

I made way for the packed grotto, brushing against the shoulders of the pilgrims. Their heads were bowed down, a few with eyes closed, to the hundreds of candles burning in the black painted iron stands. After lighting seven small red candles there, dropping a couple of coins into the iron box, and whispering a little prayer, I trudged my way toward the other gate, the one leading out to the plaza where Magellan’s Cross stood. Then the altar bells pealed from far behind me. It sounded like a tinkle of a dozen coins. The priest and the thousands of devotees began to sing together in hallowed voices as I got out the basilica.

I walked a couple of blocks back downtown until I arrived at a gas station, which also obliged as a terminal. There I finally got in a jeepney, picking the spot right behind the driver. It was then that I felt strongly that someone was following me. But I was the only passenger around. I glimpsed at the rear-view mirror and found out the driver looked exactly like the guard from the home. It was the same pair of dead eyes. Perhaps I was hallucinating again, I thought and shook my head. This should pass, like it always had.

When I handed him my fare and told him my destination, the driver said, “No, it’s all right.” I saw from the rear-view mirror that he was grinning with his perfectly white teeth. He refused again when I insisted. I left it at that, but I sat down restlessly, my palms cold and sweating, as I waited for the jeepney to move.

I glanced out the busy streets and caught sight of an old man lying down on the gutter and an old lady throwing some coins into the tin can placed between his legs. Neither of them looked at the other except me, who was looking at them both. Then a group of street children sprang out of nowhere and surrounded the old lady, who shooed them away like flies. But the dirty children remained persistent and even enjoyed pestering the old lady.

Then a group of young people in school uniforms filled the jeepney. They sat down silently with tired, long-drawn faces. Not long, the engine began to murmur and roared its way back into the road. The scent of diesel hung heavily in the dry evening air. Upon seeing the road ahead empty, the driver gunned it, as though to make up for lost time. I gazed out the window, and the crisp wind clawed sharply at my face. The jeepney was going so fast all I saw was a blur of shapes and colors.

Somewhere along the ride, I remembered the old people at the home and the old homeless people in the streets. But I no longer remembered what they looked like. To me, their faces were as dim as the night, save for the driver’s face, which I could see smiling at me from the rear-view mirror. Not once did I see his eyes blink.

My head began to throb and weigh down on my shoulders. I felt exhausted from the long walk, so I closed my eyes and slept the whole way.


The night was darker here, the heavens almost empty of stars. The moon hung like a scythe about to be swung, its light gleaming at the remains of the world.

I was now in a cemetery quite far from the city, sitting on top of someone’s grave, reflecting on my day’s work so far, in flickering candlelight. It was all silent here, all too silent. The tall blades of grass didn’t sway and were as still as the graves.

I went on with my work, studying the blocks of epitaphs at my feet. In the end, what survives us but these? Names, dates, quotes, and bones occupying a piece of land until the whole world itself becomes the largest piece of skull?

Despite knowing nothing of their lives, I felt strangely close to the dead people—as I did with the old people—almost pitying their misfortune of aging and dying as though I wouldn’t meet the same end. Some died old, some died too young. The youngest one I saw among the graves had died a day after his birth. When I asked myself aloud where these people were now, the air around me grew cold and somber, as though in response to my question.

Then a thought came storming in my head: Any living person could easily be underneath the ground he was treading on, just like what happened to my father, feeding the worms, fattening up the soil. And those old people I had met this afternoon were perhaps closer to death than anybody. The gaunt old cripple, whose name I had forgotten, could finally have his wish granted and be the first one to go, or that filthy man who had asked me for a few coins for dinner.

Beneath my feet, the earth patiently waited for the living. One day lived was one day less.

I poured all my thoughts, however disorderly, onto the moonlit pages until my back became sore and pins and needles prick into my hand. I wrote slowly to feel how heavy the words were as I dragged them out of my hand: “When one is born, one is already old enough to die. Nothing guarantees a longer life or an afterlife. Nothing guarantees we will return home alive the moment we leave our beds.”

I stood up when I finished writing and stretched my arms up to the sky. I looked up and saw the clouds above me had massed together, like a crowd gathering around a man shot dead on the street. Then I started to walk around the cemetery under the blurred disk of the moon. I noticed it had gotten darker, and a strange cold air crept all over my body, which gave me the frightening impression that someone who had been long following me had now found me. I walked faster to keep myself warm, but I didn’t know where to go. I shivered, sensing a foreboding in each step I took.

I stood stunned as I caught a glimpse of a familiar name etched on one of the epitaphs. It was my mother’s, with both the dates of her birth and death. I didn’t know what to make out of it. Then I heard footsteps coming from behind me, and before I turned around, I had a fair idea to whom they belonged.

There he was again, walking toward me, with eyes as dead as coins. He was now a shallow gravedigger, carrying a shovel on his shoulder. He placed his cold hand on my back and led me closer toward my mother’s epitaph. Neither him nor I spoke a word. We just stood, looking at each other now and then, as if in a game of chess, wondering whose turn it was to move already.

“Exactly three days from now,” the gravedigger spoke at last, and sighed, setting aside his shovel, “I figure. Do forgive my intrusions. I also work here.” His tone struck me as humorous and oddly pleasant. He waited for me to talk, his long face, pale and sunken, spread in front of me.

“What’s happening?” I said, eventually.

“Oh, what is happening?” He attempted to suppress a chuckle.

“Why is my mother’s grave here? She’s not dead. She’s not even dying.”

“Yes.” He grinned, then spoke coldly, “But in three days and three nights she will be.”

“Why will she die? How? What will she die of?”

“The specifics of someone’s death is a private matter, young man. No one is allowed to know, even the person himself. Only God knows, and me, of course.”

“Why have you been following me? And who are you?”

“You very well know who I am.” The gravedigger burst out into a hearty laugh, but his eyes were as still as a dead fish’s. “I had my eye on you since this morning, and I’m quite impressed me with your, shall I say, schoolwork. It is my great honor to show you this.” He gestured for me to look around the cemetery.

It was only then that I realized the cemetery had changed. There were perhaps a hundred graves more, and they seemed to have just sprouted out from the ground like plants.

 “Feel free to look around,” the gravedigger said to me. “Be my guest.” He went off ahead, dragging along his shovel against the ground as though to leave a mark for me to follow.

I followed his steps and read the epitaphs I saw along the way. I recognized a few names, but felt nothing because I still couldn’t make out what was happening, whether it was all real or I was going mad again. He seemed to have noticed that, for he said to me:

“This is where a person’s life and death are prearranged. When one is born, his grave will already appear here at the same time. Do you see that?”

We stepped into a halt. And there it was, toward the direction he was pointing, I could hear a stone carved by an invisible hand. First came the dates of birth and death, then later came the name.

“So everything has already been decided right from the start except for the name?” I asked him, surprised to feel my wit and composure returning, as though everything was still going according to my plan.

“It’s simply fate,” the gravedigger answered firmly. “There is no chance. Names seem to be chosen, but did someone ever choose his own his name, no? Fate is like a name. It’s something given, not chosen.”

“Nothing happens by chance or by choice, then, no?” I heard my tone growing sharper. “I believe that as well. I figured that there were many things I couldn’t control, even my own thoughts. Most of the time, I honestly feel they weren’t mine. So is there someone, or something, other than myself controlling me? Is it simply fate after all?”

“Who knows? Go ask God, or the child you visited at the basilica.” He appeared to be taken aback with my blast of inquiries, but nonetheless he managed to let out a chuckle. “I just do what I was asked to do, like any decent man working for his daily bread.”

I ignored his attempt at humor and continued to air out my thoughts:

“Being born was not even one’s own choice, so why should be death be of one’s own choosing? One just happened to be alive, and one ought to die the way he was born, like it just happened. But one is not born out of mere chance, am I right? That would be absurd.” I looked at him and made it certain that my eyes stood as sharp as knife ends against his dead eyes. “All has to be fated for one to be born. There has to be an order. Otherwise, one’s birth won’t make sense…Well, these things are beyond me. My head hurts terribly now. Don’t look at me like that, I am not as all-knowing as you and God are. I’ve always thought that the mistake is to have been born in the first place. I believe I am right in this account. Don’t you agree, no?”

“Quite an idea there, as what can be expected of you. But are you sure you’re right about that, no? You sound very doubtful to me. Would you rather choose never to have been born?”

“Well, I don’t know, really,” I said. “I am well past beyond that. At very rare moments, I do love living. That’s the problem, I suppose. One gets to love living sometimes no matter how miserable it gets. Does a baby regret having been born? Perhaps no. But it’s a different case when the baby grows up, when the baby learns of the alternative, which is to simply die.”

“To tell you the truth, I have noticed you when you were still a child. Oh, I remember everything that happened, and what happened to you and what you did. You were quite a case. It was not your time back then, you see.”

“Yeah, sure you do.” I let out a heavy sigh, then took in a deep breath. I was tired from all that talking. “So where is my epitaph? I would like to see it.”

“Your epitaph?”

“Yes, where is it?”

“Now where is it?” He walked with a certain nonchalance and laziness that annoyed me, his shovel scraping against the ground. I followed him again. Not one of us talked.

The cemetery was larger than I thought. Its forking paths gave me the impression of being inside a labyrinth. The deeper we walked into the cemetery, the larger the cemetery seemed. I felt we had been roaming around for an hour already and going nowhere.

 After turning around another corner, the gravedigger sighed, knelt down on the ground, and set his shovel aside. “Here is it,” he said as he waved the dust off the stone. He let out a cough and spat on the darkened ground. “I think this one’s yours.” Then I saw it, my own grave, and it annoyed me.

“Why’s that?” I asked him. “Why is there no date of death?”

“I told you before, young man. No one is allowed to know when they’re going to die.”

“But is it possible for me to know it? I want to know when I will die. You know I have come a long way for this.”

The gravedigger fell silent, gazing at my grave. Then he asked me, “Are you certain you want to know?”

“Yes. I want to know exactly when I will die. No one has that privilege.”

“Yes, people die without knowing it, and that sometimes makes me feel useless. Young man, let me tell you. A long, long time ago, I proposed to whoever was in charge of all this that to be fair, we ought to send a letter of warning a week before a person’s death. Of course, as you can expect, the one in charge rejected the whole idea. The point is this: nobody wants to die, let alone wants to know when.” The gravedigger laughed and stood up. “However, I shall show it to you. Just this time. Come and look closer. Don’t blink.”

I fixed my gaze on the epitaph, and heard the carving of the stone again. Slowly, the date of my death appeared. “Ah, I see it now.”

“Good for you. Because people naturally wouldn’t want to.”

“Yes, and may I ask one last thing?”

“That depends,” the gravedigger said, looking at me with such gloom that I felt he knew what I would ask of him.

“Show me how I will die,” I told him at last, but his face showed not the least sign of surprise. It was as if he were waiting for me to ask that long since. “I want to see it. I want see my death as though it were another person’s.”

“Why would you want that?” the gravedigger asked, his head tilting to one side, perhaps feigning interest.

“Why? Well, don’t you want me to see it? After all, I figured that is the real reason you brought me here. To show me how I will die.”

Then our talk broke off, and we started to laugh at each other like we were the closest of strangers.

“Very well, very well!” the gravedigger said, clapping his hands and laughing to his sheer satisfaction. “But don’t write about this. No, no, not that it matters! Now close your eyes. It is my greatest of pleasures to show you your death.”

“Thank you,” I said to him. I shut my eyes and waited. My hands began to tremble, and I couldn’t stop them. I heard him laugh with such abandon and exuberance it seemed he was going mad. He laughed and laughed and muttered words I didn’t understand. When I thought of opening my eyes a little to glimpse at what was happening, he stopped laughing, as though finally dropping his act.

“Farewell,” the gravedigger said with a snicker. “It has been a most entertaining evening.”

No sooner had I heard him grunt than I felt a sharp blow to my head, yet my head ached from within. It ached so horribly that I was screaming. The face of the gravedigger, it dawned on me, was a familiar face I had seen since I was a child. Then I saw it all flash, the bright spectacle of my own death, and it couldn’t be any clearer. I was deeply astounded not because what I had seen came as a surprise but because all along, I had known exactly what my own fate was.

My eyes opened on their own, and the gravedigger was no longer there. In fact, there was no one around. The cemetery returned to what it was like before the gravedigger appeared, and was emptier. The epitaph that lay at my feet was now someone else’s, a man dead many years ago. The soft glow of the moon cast my now-hideous shadow at the pitiful piece of stone. May his soul rest in peace.

Thinking of my mother’s death three days from now, a death as certain as mine, I stood and felt free, absolved at long last from the long labor of living, so completely free that my tears had come out to grieve over having been alive in this world. So forgive me, God.


Nicolo Nasol, born and raised in Cebu City, currently working as a freelance writer and editor.

Tower Crane

He was up there, hands alternately gripping the metal frames, feet blindly feeling for support. There was only a strip of cloth covering his groin. His buttocks, bared for the first time in his life outside the privacy of home, were hot with consciousness. His rear was a person; it had feelings of its own, it didn’t want to be exposed like that.

Get clothed, slip in and out of crowds, in the market, at the train station, be a shadow, be a ghost.

Remove all your clothes, try to climb a tower crane, feel achingly who you are.

His torso, ordinarily well-covered with clothes every day, was fair and smooth, as if he had drafted a Caucasian epidermis on that part of his predominantly brown body. A phantom neckband cut across his collarbones. His face was dark and pockmarked. Beyond the false sleeves, beyond the pale knees, burnt limbs. Years of toiling under the sun did that to his body, the highly-contrasting pigmentation. Two different persons seemed to have been sewn together to form his nakedness.

He looked below: Mallets, wheel barrows, drills, resting in silence. CAUTION: HARD HAT, SAFETY GLASSES, WORK BOOTS, WORK GLOVES MUST BE WORN IN THIS JOB SITE—a signage read. Bright yellow helmets piled up on a corner opposite the entrance to the fencing surrounding the wooden barracks where workers take a rest. Green vests were hanging limp from cables tied to unfinished columns like tired banners of patriotism. He looked at his right side, marveled at the tall buildings. At his left, an expanse of corrugated roofs, the red-orange color of iron oxide, and dark tarpaulins of transient living. It was very similar to his two-colored complexion, this neat demarcation of the urban face.

The clinking noise of the climb lingered from the base of the tower anchored to the ground by giant screws, up to a triangular beam almost scrapping low lying clouds. His aim: to cross the length of the horizontal arm at the top, and stand at its edge, where, used in hoisting materials up and down and to and fro the tower crane, a hook was dangling in the air like a fish bait.

Six meters above the ground. He heard a buzzing sound. He paused and looked over his right shoulder.

First it was a black dot in the horizon. A balloon, an angel, or, perhaps, a fly. It grew in size as it approached him. It was a star-shaped object with a tiny propeller on each of its arm. It hovered a few meters from him. The winged device had a small circular mirror at the front; through this eye, people in different time and place were watching him. He was sure of that, they had told him about it. His one hand gripping a rung, the other he used to make a hand gesture to the airborne nuisance: four fingers folded, thumb sticking out—OK! It glided in the air, wobbling a little in the current, as it monitor the progress of the ascend.

I EXCHANGE STIFF SMILES WITH PEOPLE I MEET AT THE OFFICE AS I DREAM OF ARSON

I exchange stiff smiles with people I meet at the office as I dream of arson. My very first thought when I saw the tall window near my seat: how will I use my swivel chair to break it in case of fire? I don’t have to jump to my death. I must live. My internet search queries: “Steps to evacuate a building in case of fire”…“High-rise fire safety tips”…“Flammable liquid”. Never use the elevator. Crawl to the nearest exit. 

My job is to watch people die from a distance. There is a wide computer screen where I can watch world news like God, snug in a soft-padded seat, hand deep into popcorn bucket, monitoring the consequence of His own absence in this planet. In different parts of the world there are mass shootings and melting glaciers. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just yawn. I know what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Faking a daughter’s terminal illness to raise charity money. Killing one’s own parent for insurance money. Using little children for sexual satisfaction. Punching a random stranger on the streets. The cycle of news is as fast as the blink of the eye; so moral outcry can’t keep up with it, and, like a faucet, can be turn on and off in convenience; for example, when it’s your birthday.

There’s a long conference table where things that are not essential to life and death and being as a manifestation of a supreme reality are discussed. The faces around the table are stupid, and the stupidest of those faces is mine. “Do you have any suggestions?”—they turn to me. Yes, set this whole room on fire now. Of course, I will never say that. I am quiet and shy and nice.

For twenty five years, ever since I’ve learned to recognize a self separate from the others, I’ve been quiet and shy and nice—while, at the same time, harboring a mental seed of chaos. Prim in clothing, well-behaved, while approving of the use of dynamite. The so-called civilized people turn to entertainment. They love the spectacle of massacre, of zombies in feeding frenzy, of cities burning. They have to relieve the itch for destruction. I am not alone.

Questions: Do the laws of the land punish mere fantasies of a fiery mayhem? Do religions trace this idealization of the petrol bomb to the Devil? There is only one reason why I haven’t acted yet on my desire of conflagration after all these years: I don’t like the hassle of carrying out plans in real life. Consider the long supply chain of our wants, crossing international borders, starting from the bowels of mining camps, ending in air-conditioned malls. I just want to lie here on my bed. I just want to dream of fire in peace.

At my funeral, ten or twenty of people would have looked at one another in silent judgment: Elena was quiet and shy and nice when she was alive! Ay sus, the platitudes—not knowing they could have had burnt to ashes long ago hadn’t for my laziness.

THE TOWER CRANE WAS A SKINLESS APPENDAGE OF A BEHEMOTH, A FEMUR JUTTING OUT OF THE CONCRETE HIPS OF THE RISING COMMERCIAL ENCLAVE

The tower crane was a skinless appendage of a behemoth, a femur jutting out of the concrete hips of the rising commercial enclave. It was a toy of an unseen real estate god. There was nothing more to the tower crane other than the endless cycle of assembly and disassembly. Its utilitarian existence was no different from the man’s. For the man was climbing it out of necessity. He was now nearly halfway through the tower crane.  At its center the operating cabin was deserted, an empty heart.

The papers, there were just too many words on them. But he remembered the numbers specified on them. Money. Views. He nodded off in the middle of the meeting, eye lids heavy, the lawyer’s words sounding like a string of infant prattle. In the end he had been able to produce, with a hard grip of the pen, in fat strokes, his name on the corners of the papers.

The man rested. His legs were hard and numb.  His face sweaty, pores aflame. He was thirsty. Someone, please, set the world on fire.

This eye of the winged device: people in different time and place were watching him through it. He was sure of that, they had told him about it. His one hand gripping a rung, the other he used to make a hand gesture to the airborne nuisance: four fingers folded, the middle sticking out—FUCK YOU!

DO I SOMETIMES WISH I COULD SET THE WORLD ON FIRE? YES.

Do I sometimes wish I could set the world on fire? Yes.

A romantic relationship with a guy ends as soon as he is close enough to me to discover I masturbate to riot. I bore him. I can’t stop talking about mobs blind with anger. I make him watch video clips of violent uprisings around the world as a condition before giving him a head. I say to him: I wish to be in any place where my cocktail of inferno will be a part of social change, not just something I keep to myself. He say, Oh, God. He leaves. I’ve been praying for a revolution in this country, so I could join in and make something of my perversions. I watch the news: A laborer died after falling from a tower crane during a paid exhibition. This is it, I say, the start of people’s revolt. But the corpses just piled up every day, one after another, and the tower crane is still intact up to this day.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com

Undertaken

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Everything comes full circle, and I am one of the gatekeepers who makes sure that that cycle won’t be broken. Here, in this cold room, I am the emissary of Death, and this is where the end of every journey begins. I understand why people get uncomfortable in morgues; it is a manifestation of their fear of the unknown, of death.

But to me, this room is just like any other place of work. One would see me eat lunch or play loud music here (it has great acoustics) even while I’m surrounded by several bodies in freezers. That is one beauty of death: the silence it brings. There could be a dozen people here with me now but I would still only hear the beat of my own heart.

But there aren’t a dozen bodies today; instead, there’s only I standing here, and you lying there on the mortuary table. I have to say, I’m surprised when I saw you today. I didn’t think I would see you so soon. Other morticians might have the luxury of being detached from their patients, but I own the only funeral parlor in town. Before you, there were others that I have worked on—some I know by name, some by face. There was your friend, Paeng, whom you went to cockfights with. His skin is particularly tough and he had a lot of visceral fat—I remember how hard it was to make that y-incision. Then there was one of your godchildren, Mark. I used to play with him when I was younger, though I never really liked his brash, hyper-masculine games. Still, I know that you liked him, and I wondered then how you felt when you found out he died? He was in a gnarly state when they brought him here—his face nearly split in half vertically upon collision with an electric pole. It took all my demisurgery skills to make him look like how he was again. You see, that is my gift: to fix what was broken, or at least make them appear like they are not.

I adjusted the head block, making sure that there was enough room to expose your jugular. Aside from the modesty cloth on your waist, there isn’t anything there to stop me from seeing your nakedness. Not that it mattered—modesty isn’t exactly the first thing I worry about in this line of work. Still, I can’t say that I am not weirded out in the slightest, especially with male cadavers. I have seen all body types and shapes, hairs growing everywhere they shouldn’t, post-mortem erections. With you, it shouldn’t be any different. I remove everything you came with: your wedding ring, an old but expensive Rolex, the golden crucifix you wear on your neck. When you were finally ready, I put on my gloves, lathered the antibacterial soap, and started scrubbing your body.

Did you ever bathe me as a child? I guess I’d never know, but if I had to make a bet, I would say you never did. The first parent I could remember was Nanay Rosing. She was an old woman already even when I was still young, toothless and graying hair and all that; but she loved me like her own, perhaps the same way she loved you when she took care of you when you were a child yourself. Nanay would be the one to hold me when I was scared, who wiped my fevered brow when I was sick, who would soothe me when I cried from being bullied by my playmates. I never needed you while she was around. I think she knew I couldn’t rely on you, anyway, so she held on to life at least until I could take care of myself. I had no choice but to grow up fast.

I washed away the remaining lather and started examining your body, how flexible it was, how much solution I would need to preserve you. Your joints were still supple, and I knew then I still had time. I had to admit how good you still looked for your age; I mean, you looked better than me, though people always noted how similar we looke. The sinew of your strong arms, the taut lines in your chest, your still flat stomach. All those years of military discipline really did do wonders. I took my scalpel and made a small incision on your neck; a few specks out of the river of blood dropped onto the stainless steel table. I took my osteotome and exposed your carotid artery. I removed the carotid sheath and inserted the intravenous needle, letting the cocktail of formaldehyde and methanol flow through your veins. The chemicals started to firm your muscles, and in turn, expelled your blood slowly in the process. The diluted red liquid flowed down the drain at the end of the mortuary table; this made me think of all the people you have killed—did you see their blood spill from the bullet wounds you caused, too?

You talked about them a lot when you were drunk. You said they were traitors to the country, that they deserved to die. You would brag about them to your friends in the military. Back then, I thought those drinks were celebratory. But when I eventually learned about the costs of war, of how many innocent people actually died, I couldn’t help but think that they were therapeutic instead, as if it was a way of coping with your guilt.

When the embalming tank was emptied, I checked your limbs again. I flexed your hands; strong, callused, just the way I remembered them smacking me behind the head or throwing me bodily across the room. I learned to avoid you during your bouts of drinking. Back then, I just thought you hated how I turned out to be someone so unlike you. How I preferred the company of books and television and not boys like Mark who are rowdy and rough and so very strong. Or how, in a moment of misjudgment, I told you how I wanted to work with the dead when I saw Mama’s last ever picture. You didn’t understand then: it wasn’t just because she looked beautiful in her casket, but how she looked so alive, like she was just sleeping. You thought I was weird, wanting to be a morticia. You thought that I was drawn to it because of the make-up, like cosmetology was just so natural to me because of my softness. I saw how your face looked when you put two-and-two together, how it contorted to a look of disgust and hate that even then I could already understand.

But I realized that you already hated me way before that. I did kill the woman you love, after all. I could only imagine how devastated you were, so young and so hopeful and so full of dreams, only for them to be shattered. You loved her so much that no matter how many women lay on your bed, you never had one stay for more than a night. Believe me, if I had the choice, I would have traded my life for hers. But she didn’t give either of us that chance now, did she? She knew her pregnancy was dangerous, but she decided that my life is worth more than hers.

If only you saw it that way, too. Instead, you saw me as your enemy, just one of your casualties of war. Despite everything, I could not hate you, though. Perhaps it’s the remaining filial piety inside of me. Perhaps it’s because, at least once in your life, you were like a soldier to me, too.

You saved me.

I knew of evil when I was ten years old. He was a brigadier general then, you a colonel. Who knows what heights you both could have reached? Part of moving up the ranks was the internal politics, I heard you once said in drunken confidence, but only after you have finished your regular weekly dinners and drinking sessions with your military superiors. If anything, your dream of becoming a general yourself was what kept you going all these years. Your closest patron, the brigadier general, was kind: he had the same severe haircut like everyone else in your group, the same austere countenance; but he always spoke softly to me, and many times he acted like the father you refused to be. Unlike you, he listened to my deepest fears. Unlike you, he laughed at my childlike view of the world. Unlike you, he held me close to him; his hands were caring at first, but then they were thorny vines all over my body, shackling my limbs and stifling my mouth so I can speak no longer. He abused me so many times and told me not to breathe a word to anyone.

But of course I did.

I thought you wouldn’t believe me. Why would you believe a ten-year-old child you hate?

But I guess it was the stoic manner I told you, without tears or any shred of emotion, that made you decide I was telling the truth. I was scared but didn’t know how to express it, a mute cry for help. You never did tell me how you did it, but I know that that general never came back. Neither did the others. Your weekends became filled with solitary drinking sessions and your miserable soliloquy. I was like a ghost in the room. Sometimes, though, you saw me, and in your weakest moments, you acknowledged how I ruined your life. How, in saving me, I took away the only will you have to live, because in bringing down my abuser, he took you down with him. You remained a colonel the rest of your life, so I was only right in just standing there, accepting your words like gospel, waiting for them to turn into prophecy. I deserved them.

I clothed you, making sure your insignia was clean and straight. My fingers run over the three stars on your sleeve. You were prouder of them than you were ever of me, I chuckled under my breath. But even now, I am still in awe of you in your full military regalia. You look so strong, and strangely, power emanated from you, even in death. I prepared my palette, making sure that the powders will match your skin tone. I mix a bit of rouge for your cheeks to color, some tans under your eyes to add dimension. I worked expertly, trying to capture all your imperfections until finally, I am satisfied with how normal you look. Finally, you look like you are just sleeping.

I smiled at the irony of it all—you didn’t expect me to be the one to work on you, did you? You didn’t write any sort of will, and you just made your way to me basically out of convenience. I wish you could see how good a job I did, not that you would appreciate it. Doing this for a living was one thing, but telling you I was gay was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.

To you, it all made sense: how I was “obsessed” with death and make-up and books and hating all your toxic macho things—you just lumped them all in one mishmash of “perversions,” didn’t you? You gave up on me, and I guess that was when I gave up on you, too. I wanted you to see that I needed you, that I was still too green to face the world on my own, but I haven’t heard a peep from you in the fifteen or so years since we parted. I was filled with sadness and fear, and hatred of myself—of how I didn’t recognize the brave and kind man they all told me you were, because I killed him. Until one day, I realized that it wasn’t me who was at fault. I was a child, and you were the parent. I saw myself through your eyes, and all I felt was pity, not for myself, but for you. All I saw was the reflection of all your weakness and failings, a monster you created.

You didn’t hate me. You just really hated yourself. And I took comfort in that thought.

You are ready to leave now, though. The monster is already dead, and I, your emissary of Death, will usher you to your next destination, wherever that will be. I enclosed a crisp hundred-peso bill in your hand, a tradition I always found stupid. For surely, if the ferryman of souls will ask for compensation, he will ask not for money, but for all the hate and regret you harbor. It makes the boat too heavy to be seaworthy, and besides, you have more than enough to give. The stories you will tell him can easily last a hundred lifetimes.

Perhaps, I should give you something too as a parting gift. I thought a thousand times over if I can give you my forgiveness, but you never did ask for it, did you? I can’t give you something you don’t need. So instead, I choose to give you silence. To the world of the living, you will remain an outstanding soldier, a good provider, a loyal husband. Like the way I preserved your body, I will preserve your name and reputation. They will never meet the monster you created. They will never hear the words you never told me. The judgment of humans will be kind, at least. I promise to take every hurt I have to my own grave. Because that is what I do, right? I can’t fix what is broken, but I can make them appear like they were never broken in the first place.

I removed my gloves and sighed in relief. It was finally over, all of it. I realize in sad irony how your death will give me life, for now I am finally free from you, but you are free of me, too.

Perhaps, now, I can be who I really am. Perhaps, now, I can finally let go of you, as you have of me many, many years back. I uttered my good-byes quietly, but they ricocheted off the walls of

the room, mocking me with the echo of my own platitudes.

“Rest in peace,” I hear myself say.


Jay-ar Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. He has extensive background in campus journalism as an editor-in-chief in elementary and high school as well as a contributor in his college days in UP Diliman. Currently an editor at Vox Populi PH, he likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard.

In the Name of the Son

Tim’s father was putting on an old pair of rubber shoes he hadn’t worn for years. He put a shoe on, removed it, pulled the tongue out, took a peep inside. His father’s stomach and chest were pressed together as he reached down again for his foot. He was sitting on a plastic bench salvaged from last year’s flood that swept the province.  

“What’s the matter with your shoes?”

“Nothing.” He tried to put the shoes on again.

He was reminded of a similar scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in the first act where the beggarly Estragon was struggling with his boots. Tim had purchased a worn out copy of the play from a secondhand bookstore for fifteen pesos and read it under the florescent bulb for the whole night. The next day he wrote a piece about it for the college paper. Waiting for Godot, he wrote, echoes the uncertainty of the individual living in a big world jointly built and operated by state and corporate powers (That’s why nobody reads your work, Sonny Boy told him, because it’s full of pretentious shit).

“There’s a flashlight in the kitchen drawer, some extra batteries. You use it for night roving. In case you get a little bit of curious of nightly apparitions.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Well, if you don’t believe in ghosts, at least believe in bad men.”

Seven steps to the kitchen. A creak of wooden lids, squeak of knobs, clang of metal utensils. Seven steps back to the bedroom. Three Christmas decors from last year’s Christmas—tiny red Santa Clauses de-glittered by the overdue stay in a tropical country—were taped outside the window, now coated with thick dust. An amputated Sto. Nino statue, the little Jesus with brown curls and seductive eyelashes, stood slightly skewed on a table, thick folds of old sweepstakes tickets accumulating under its base. The icon lost its two limbs many years ago. There was a faded green blanket, washed seven months ago, hanging from the clothesline outside. Seven months ago, Tim’s mother died.

“Sorry, boy. I feel bad in putting you in this job. It’s just a few days off your school vacation. I already said yes to Sir Mark when my agency called me to serve as a reliever at the warehouse. I can’t split myself into two to take both jobs.”

His father once mentioned that this Sir Mark had a daughter of Tim’s age, a college sophomore studying in an exclusive all-girls school in Quezon City. Imagine the hiring man telling his daughter: ‘I employed my worker’s son to supervise our house for a few days while we’re on vacation. The child had to earn money to continue schooling’. And the daughter—sensitive, pretty, fragrant: ‘Oh, how poor!’  Hate Sir Mark. Or Mark, as Tim called him privately. Remove the servile “sir” and hate him like an equal. 

At last, his father, by some miraculous procedure, finally fitted the pair of shoes in his feet. From a little plastic box, a box where Tim kept his toiletries, he brought out a jar of scented hair styling gel and tossed it to his father. His father frowned and tossed it back to him. Then he disappeared into the front door. When he reemerged he’s holding two bottles of beer, each on his hand.

“Have some.”

“No, Pa.”

“This day only, son.”

Tim ignored the pleading tone of his father’s voice, got up and went straight to the bathroom. It was a scorching morning. His hair and shirt were matted into tameness by sweat and body heat. He heard three deep gulps; so his father’s eyes were still on him, burning holes on the door, still holding the bottles, waiting for him to stick his arms out for the alcoholic offering. When he finished bathing himself, his father had already left. The beer that was meant for Tim was left untouched on the table. 

Wriggling loose from a big towel pink and fresh, he began ticking the mental checklist of the things that he should bring with him: a pair of jeans, three T-shirts, a towel, four briefs, a pair of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, bath soap, cellphone, battery charger, packets of coffee, pen, notebook.  And most importantly, books—Dostoyevky’s Notes From the Underground, Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom.


Sonny Boy—imagine him spraying his pee all over the flower garden of the house, or making indistinguishable tiny vandalism on the wallpapered walls after sharing Tim’s hate for Sir Mark. And they shall find the daughter’s room, discover her name, search her up on Facebook.

The jeepney terminal was inside the public market. The woman looked up, stretching his fifty-peso paper bill on her table. Her shiny forehead caught some silvery light emitted by the parked public vehicles nearby. She had been the collector of jeepney fare since the terminal was built, and like an office girl, she had her own table and a big black calculator. The sides of her nose were caked with wet face powder. Her eyeliner was spotty, unclean. She handed Tim his change without looking at him, her aquamarine fingernails flashing for a second. 

Few steps from her table were stalls of nuts, barbeque, and fruit juice. The vendors were watching in a tiny television seated on a three feet stack of wooden crates. Stray cats were sniffing around.

Inside the jeepney, he sat beside two old ladies in matching jogging pants. He rested his right hand on his knee. He saw the dark patch of his skin again: an elevated dark oblong the size of a candy. Sonny Boy was the only one who knew the real story behind the scar. He told him everything about his life.

Scars reveal people who lacked character, those people who were inclined to ask him where he got the perfect oblong scar on his hand despite his obvious attempts to hide it from view. I got it when I was a kid, he’d lie. I scraped it with a knife. I was trying to peel a mango. My hands were tiny then. Oh, you should have let your parents peel it, they’d say. All that nonsense. He divided his classmates into two groups: those who were nosy about body marks, and those who were quiet about them. Sonny Boy belonged to the second group; he was more concerned with his gaming statistics than he was with personal history. He wasn’t a gossip, that’s why he liked him.

Tim got his scar from his father eight years ago. He was twelve years old then. He was very shy and scared of people, especially his father. One night his father came home drunk. He pinched his son’s hand, his sharp nails scraped a bit of flesh off his skin, leaving a crimson hole. Tim stifled his cry and retreated to the room. The wound got infected after a few days and became fatter and fatter with rich pus as the days went by. His mother, shrunken in the eyes, white in the lips, poured vinegar unto the infection. Why bother your mother about it? His father was slumped on a plastic chair, a cold beer sweating profusely on the bare floor. It was just a small wound. When I was your age, I almost broke my arm in carpentry work. Humm, humm—his mother, who was suffering from a respiratory illness, would croon like a nocturnal insect. She wanted silence.

His father’s cruelty was new to him. He used to be a jolly man. His father had a fat stomach on which he would draw a face using a black marker; he would make it talk and dance, and it would make little Tim laugh.  Now his father was an angry man. His eyes had become fury red. He would lie awake the whole night doing nothing. He would leave home without any explanation. He started selling their appliances. He had no permanent job. His relatives had refused to loan him money. He had hurt his only son.

One morning, Tim buttoned up his school uniform in dumb slowness. In his raw eyes there was no sparkle of excitement. Tim’s hair was unwashed and sticky and his being was full of disappointed bowels. When he left it, the house was shaking with his father’s directionless fury. Last night the patriarch smashed the Sto. Nino against the wall. 

On his way home Tim met Mang Dinio. He was riding his bike, multi-colored bundles of folded papers spilling from his pockets, a ballpen clipped in the side of his head. The old man warned him that his father was very angry because he wasn’t home yet. 

“What took you so long?” Mang Dinio asked him. 

“It was recognition day”. Tim said, knees shaking. 

“Did you tell your father or mother about it?”

Tim shook his head. And then the man noticed the medals around the boy’s neck.

“I am Best in Math, Best in Science, Best in English, Best in HEKASI…” 

At the distance there was a thumping sound. It was his father kicking their door from the outside. 

“Ernie! Stop that! Here’s your son!”  Mang Dinio shouted. 

Ernie stopped his outburst but he did not look at their way. Of course, he already heard that his son had been given honors. But he didn’t know what it really meant. What Ernie thought was that his son just answered the teacher’s questions correctly and it meant nothing.  Faces showed up from half-opened doors.  In the barangay the houses were huddled so closely together that people could make confident guesses who among them sings every bath time.

“Ernie, look at your boy!”

From where he was standing Tim could feel the presence of his mother, a silent listener in her dark bed, her emotions taking the form of a mist, so heavy and warm, slipping sluggishly out of the window to greet him. Tim thought he saw the curtains in her room moved. She was proud of him.

“What’s your birth date, young boy?” Mang Ernie steadied a pen on a sheaf of paper on his palm.

Some of their neighbors started to gather around the scene. They fished coins from their pockets.

“Pataya, Mang Dinio!”

“I dreamed last week Ernie’s boy was stroking a golden rooster. This boy is your way out of this shithole.”

“Suwerte!”

The boy’s knees and feet and hands were cold. The golden honors were jingling around his neck. He mustered all the remaining courage in his little heart and dared to look at his father’s face. His father was crying.

“Wait for me here. I’ll borrow some money…” His father spoke, at last.

It was around six o’clock in the evening when Tim’s father returned home. Two of his friends just arrived after him carrying a case of beer. A delicious smell flooded the house. It came from a bag of roasted chicken. 

“This is my future lawyer.” His father shoved him to the merriment. It was a night of gaiety and he was at its center; it was something Tim had never experienced before.

The next day his father got a tattoo on his right arm: Tim.


It was five in the afternoon, and he was now walking over the Marilao Bridge. The afternoon sun was harsh at him, permitting no shade on his face except the ones offered by his bushy eyebrows and by the peak of his nose. REYMOND LOVE DIANA—he walked over the imprint on the cement. Hieroglyphics of the street life, government paint peeling off.

He paused to look over the brown river. Brown, brown, brown.

He refreshed his vision by dipping his eyes on the creamy soup of clouds above.

Past the bridge, under the road, down the steel railed stairs, was the wet market.

“Hello? Sonny? Can you hear me? It’s noisy over here. I’ll text you.”

He swam in the crowd. When Tim stopped over red peppers and tomatoes, a young girl appeared from the strings of seasonings. The public market is a good place to define one’s self; market people are highly sensitive to your presence, down to the movements of your eyeballs, the turns of your neck. They are also happy to see you.  If you feel alienated and unimportant, feign interest to the vegetables, he scribbled inside his mind. He will transfer it later to his notebook.

“Hi, kuya,” she sang.

“Tomatoes.”

The girl had a long cooper brown hair that seemed to match her clear brown eyes. She gathered some tomatoes, little plump greenish-red, put them inside a plastic bag in graceful haste; and to validate her picks, she put the bag unto the weighing scale.

He didn’t really know what to do with the purchase; perhaps he could decorate his dinner with those neat pulpy red slices.

The line of the tricycles was lazy and unmoving. The sight of him approaching stirred some resting drivers. There was a jesting throng around a TV showing a replay of Pacquiao-Vargas fight in Las Vegas.

“Duchess Homes.” Tim said to the driver in front of the line, a woman in sunglasses and long-sleeves. She nodded and kicked the motor into life.

The security personnel at the post nodded at the tricycle as it entered the residential area.  The houses were fantasies straight from real estate brochures; founded on perfect asphalt, and packaged according to a propertied citizen’s trinity of values: family, security, leisure. Tim bid the tricycle to stop when he spotted a pink house bearing the numbers of the address given to him by his father.

There was a dog inside. It started to bark as the gate creaked open. At the farthest corner of the property, the metal kennel. Inside it, a Doberman with a demonic dark coat and haughty chest. The unbearable smell of the waste told Tim that there were no people around to attend to the animal. The whole two-story house was painted soft pink. The windows were thickly curtained. In the porch, all the potted plants were plastic and there was an impeccably smooth wooden bench. He ventured inside for more cold newness.

The owners have been busy putting expensive lacquer on their hollow lives, he thought, full of bitterness. He thought about the daughter. As a child, the daughter must have experienced being scolded by her parents for touching display figurines sitting at one of the shelves downstairs.  What if she was so beautiful and delicate? It didn’t matter. Tim will not meet her anyway. He was ashamed of himself, ashamed for being there, for being in their house. Just the thought of their eyes meeting upon her arrival made his lungs feel tight.

Upstairs, he refused the offer of handshakes from insincere doorknobs. A white curtain was flowing from ceiling to floor, and behind the shroud, a balcony overlooking the streets.  The dimming sky and the shadows around the place reminded him that there was no available power source in that house. He brought his bag down and fished for the flashlight.


Ah, ten days to go before the enrollment for the second semester. Ah, school…when will he be safe from its terrorism? Poverty is incongruous to scholarship, said one of his professors. He had three lamentations: 1. Filipinos are not readers; 2. Filipinos don’t visit museums; 3. Philippines is not an intellectual country. His conclusion:  Filipinos are all ignoramuses singing and dancing to Willie Revillame’s noontime jingle. He raised his two hands in the air and started to tap his foot on the floor rhythmically. Boom tarat tarat, boom tarat tarat, boom boom boom—a rare sing and dance number from the most learned of them all. The students went wild with laughter.

The professor started to tell the class about his older brother who had met the Pope in person in the Vatican. There was a chorus of wow. What was he like, sir? Kind-looking old man, waves his hand away when people try to kiss it. Then he reminded the students of their payments for the textbook he co-authored. Tim had already skimmed it—double-spaced, 14 font size, numerous blank pages—the MS Word layout of deception; just to achieve the scholarly thickness needed to be taken seriously by the students.  Sonny Boy called the textbook a scam. Suddenly, the ceiling fan snapped during the class. The electronic was beheaded by a nameless malady that had been lurking in the campus for ages. The multi-colored wires sprung out like entrails of a castrated animal. There was no dignity.


An engine noise. Then the barking of the dog. Tim started to regret that he didn’t take a knife with him. Look, there might be scoundrels out there stalking the Sir Mark’s Facebook account, they might have gotten the idea that the cat was away. He looked down from the balcony and saw Sonny Boy on motorcycle.

Tim chuckled. He met him outside the gate. Sonny Boy handed him a 7-Eleven plastic bag.

“Nice. Red Horse.”

 “I took another route to avoid those guards.”

They sat on the concrete balustrade of the balcony, their backs leaning against the pillars. They mirrored each other’s position: one leg stretched out on the ledge, the other hanging on one side of the railing. They commented on the houses and empty streets illuminated by street lamps. They exchanged jokes and stories about school.

“Thank you for coming, Sonny. Sorry, you have to spend money.”

“It’s okay, Tim. I have full-time work now. Call center.”

“What about school?”

“I’m quitting.”

Tim didn’t say anything. Sonny Boy seemed to be offended by the silence.

“Of course, Tim…”

“What?”

“The dean is considering you for a teaching position as soon as you graduate. Your future is secured. I know you look down on—what do you call it, capitalism? Imperialism? I’ve lost track of your ism isms.” He fished a cigarette and a lighter from his pocket. “Look at our teachers, fresh out of college, almost at our age. The old ones are too lazy; I have little interest in them. They have masters and doctoral degrees. It won’t hurt them if we lose our faith in them. Years and years of teaching experience. They don’t have to strike a pose anymore. For them, teaching is endless comings and goings of idiots like us. But the younger ones, I have emotion for them. I think you’ll be a good teacher.”

The moon was now blanketed by the cigarette smoke.

“Can you imagine yourself spending three hours sounding bigger than you really are? Tiring, right?  Sounding smarter than you really are? Setting your spine straight in front of the blackboard? I tell you, Tim: when you become a college instructor, you will be indistinguishable from me. You will blurt out greetings, too. Use an intonation that’s not really yours. Fall in line at ATM. But there’s a difference…” He unleashed the final smoke, a dragon. “I’m faced with the hard facts of life. Abuses by pampered, distant oppressors who have only TV channels to worry about. While you, in your safe stature, will receive forced laughter at your classroom jokes.”

Tim did not respond. Sonny Boy flicked the cigarette butt into the darkness.

“There are lots of mosquitoes here. I think it’s time for me to go now.”

When he was left alone for the night, he had a hard time falling sleep. He tried to think about random things. He sat up and groped for an ant navigating on his back. After squashing the source of irritation between his fingers, he lied on his bed again and turned on the flashlight to his notebook. He started writing.

In the beginning there was a father who loved his only begotten son…

He woke up in the morning with the pen in his hand. He smoothed out his shirt and removed a whitish accumulation from his eyes (did he cry last night?) One thing was for sure: There was now a growing chasm between Sonny Boy and him.

When he went down, he noticed the dog’s protruding ribcage. He tore open a bag of dry dog food he had found in the kitchen and filled a dish with the brown pellets. Its snout twitched due to the smell of beef, and the dog started to whimper like the puppy that it used to be.  

“I will make you macho again”. 

Three days passed. Tim, the sole source of nourishment and companionship, became the Father God of food, water, and sunshine. He named the dog after Jean Jacques Rousseau’s dog, Sultan. One morning he walked Sultan at the nearby park. With soldierly gait Sultan demonstrated his royal name to the world. Other people in the park looked at the man and beast tandem in admiration. Tim felt his head getting expansive, his steps getting lighter and lighter; he was ready to fly with pleasure. Did he just relish in the attention of other human beings? He led the dog to a cool shade under a tree. He was dismayed by himself. If this is an immediate way of gaining approval—that is, parading a dog—what use it is to spend immeasurable hours cultivating one’s mind? All he had to do is to find himself a work, buy a foreign breed of dog, take pride in its ownership. Man is free, but everywhere he is on a leash! He takes delight in his philosophical parody. A pampered dog is the opium of the bourgeois. Imagine Sonny Boy mocking him: Hypocrite! You’ve just christened a dog with an aristocratic name. You should have named it Bantay!

When Tim returned from that day’s walk he saw a black car parked outside the house. A bald man in a white shirt was standing outside the house. The man had a pair of bulging eyes. He looks like a frog, Tim concluded. The object of his silent hostility was speaking to someone on the phone. Finally, they met each other’s gaze.

“Hey, who are you? Where’s Badong?”

“Badong?”

“Who are you? You’re not supposed to be here.” He turned to his phone. “Sir Mark, Badong is not here. There’s another person…” He stepped away from Tim. He sneakily took photos of Tim and the dog. Tim clenched his fists. After a few seconds the man walked up to him with inquiring eyes.

“I was tasked by Sir Mark to look after the house… I’m also taking care of his dog.”

“What’s your name?”

“Tim. I’m Ernie’son.”

The man moved away from him again. Must be the son of one of the workers, he overheard him saying on the phone. In paranoiac energy, the amphibian bully combed the streets using his eyes, looking from right to left, left to right. With his chin he motioned to Tim to follow him inside the house.

Tim returned Sultan to its cage.

“Sir Mark wants you to leave now” He dug his wallet from his jeans and produced two one-hundred peso bills. “Take this. It’s from Sir Mark. Before you go, let me check the contents of your bag.”

Tim unzipped his bag and held it before the man. A brusque hand slithered inside the bag, lingered inside it for a few seconds—until it groped something that made his eyes big. His hand re-emerged with a tiny sachet of powdered coffee. He dropped it inside the bag.  

“You can go now.”

As soon as he stepped outside the house, Tim boldly looked up at the blazing sun—an injured mortal looking at God’s celestial eye, demanding justification for his humiliation. The daughter was watching all of this from a distance, pitying Tim.

He tried to contact him on the phone. It was ringing idiotically into infinity. He sent a barrage of hurtful text messages.

— Why sent me here, you filthy old man! Wer r u?!!!

He rushed to the office of his employment agency (Months ago, he went there to claim his father’s salary on his behalf). He asked for the address of the warehouse his father had mentioned to him five days ago. A female staff was alarmed by the dark seriousness in his eyes. She provided him the information without any question. 

The combined solar heat and metallic stench stung his skin and nostrils when he got off the jeepney, and, for a moment, he felt disoriented. He saw a guiding star: the scintillating spark of a welding work at the top of the warehouse where his father was said to be working. He had to pass by three ten-wheeler trucks parked on the side of the road before making it to a makeshift cubicle near the entrance of a loading area; a place half-obscured by a mesh of metal and hazard warning posters. Two security guards were in a midst of conversation inside the post when he appeared before them without any preamble.

“Where’s my father Ernie?”

“Ah, you’re the future lawyer he was bragging about.”

“Is my father here?”

“He was here a few months ago. He was only a reliever.”

“Where is he now?” 

“We don’t know.” The older of the two was evidently irritated by the lad’s demanding behavior. “Why don’t you ask the police?”

Tim saw it. A conspiratorial glimmer in their eyes. They knew his father’s history.

Of course. Tim would never ever tell the police.


The dusk was settling in over their barangay when he arrived on foot. The sky was now an atmospheric waltz of orange and violet.

There was a mark of brown mud, imprint of shoes, on the door. It had been left ajar, a dent on its edge told a violent entry. Inside the house, disorder. One tiny Santa Claus was crushed on the floor. Clothes were sticking out from plastic drawers. The Sto. Nino was lying on its back. The floor was strewn with old sweepstakes tickets.  The bottle of beer had been emptied of contents.

The father had marked the door with blood of a lamb so the Angel of Death would spare his son. 

He went to the local chapel where funeral proceedings were taking place—black tent, flower wreath, white candles, crucifix, coffin, cadaver. The murmurings in the wake quieted down when he started walking down at the middle of the aisle like a groom in anticipation of his bride. When he reached the coffin, he looked down on it to see if his father was there. It was someone else. He left the place dazed and forlorn and unable to scream.

He met Mang Dinio at the middle of the street. The old man had his one foot propped on the pedal of his bicycle, his other foot on the ground. A ballpen wrapped in thick rubber band was resting above his right ear. On his left hand, a roll of papers. Mang Dinio had been a jueteng agent for years, the established custodian of people’s hope for instant wealth. It seemed that he himself, a numerologist of prosperity, worn down after all these years of dreaming, hadn’t yet discovered the secret of the universe.

“Policemen were making rounds last week with Kapitan…” 

 “Where is my father?”

“That’s Obet.” He pointed to the funeral with his upper lip. “Tried to fight back, they said.” He smirked.

Silence.

“By the way, what’s your father’s birthday?”

The father wrapped his son with a cotton blanket, placed him inside a basket, and hid him among the reeds.

Mang Dinio removed the pen from his ear. Tim answered that he wasn’t sure about his father’s date of birth. The old man returned the pen to his ear.

“I dreamed last night that your father was rowing a white boat in a black lake.”  He didn’t wait for Tim to respond.

He spat on the gravel before pedaling away from the young man.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

When you think about the notes and letters, from the very beginning, everything made you want to plug in your earphones all day and play your old, favorite song. Extreme’s More Than Words was the quintessential love song for the love you had with that person, you thought.

You like how even the seemingly old-fashioned survive, how they outlasted even their makers, and how the old, like some of these songs you like to listen to, still capture the immaculate beauty of life, and lack thereof. Siya? How about that person?

That song gets you every single time. When their lips part to start singing, in your imagination at least, you can’t help but sway to your right, then to my left. You lip synch, too. Then to snap your fingers to the beat of it all.

But you married the old with the new, the innovative, with those that blaze the trail for the many other ways our ears develop fetishes – where ogling becomes a desire no less. Much like the upbeat Paramore you learned to love starting with That’s What You Get.

You let it all engulf yourself. You close your eyes and let the world melt. Only the music, you, and that person – that’s all that existed in the forefront of your mind. The perfection of your fantasy – that’s where you belong.

Saying I love you
Is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
Not to say, but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
‘Cause I’d already know

Can you just stay in those moments, in that perfection? Can’t you just prove “that your love for me is real”? To stay in those wonderful, wonderful moments in that world mentioned so vividly in the letters.

You let it all engulf yourself. You close your eyes and let the world melt. Only the music, you, and that person – that’s all that existed in the forefront of your mind. The perfection of your fantasy – that’s where you belong.

Those notes and letters… How did each of them reach you anyway? Fate? Destiny?

Growing up, like many other boys, you would watch robots battle it all out on TV. One of them was Gundam. You can still remember how each principle that each character lived up for materialized in the names of their robots. Freedom, the white mobile suit with cerulean blue wings, Justice, the ruby mobile suit with a jetpack, Destiny, the royal violet winged mobile suit and Legend, the most sinister-looking meteor gray mobile suit with all its guns protruding from its back and homing beam guns. Legend is the descendant of an earlier model called Providence.

You remember how the final battle of Gundam Seed Destiny ended. Freedom beat Providence and Justice beat Destiny. The end was clear; the victors are obvious. When Destiny and providence collided, Freedom and Justice reigned over both of them.

Can you say the same thing? Can you say that it was providence or it was destiny that brought that person’s letter underneath your desk?

That person was in that classroom. That person was in there five minutes earlier. There were still a lot of students in still; God knows that that person was there.

Your hair was swept to the left, straightened by the pomade you had just bought the other day. Your horn-rimmed glasses were clear of dust. Your bronzed face was resting on your left palm when you slipped your right hand under the desk. Bored, you decided it was best to kill time that way, rummaging under the desk in hopes of seeing something new, something interesting.

You felt something. It was a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper with the most beautiful penmanship. Its beauty was paradoxical. Its beauty didn’t match the message it contained. It said:

I’m bored. Would you leave a message here? –L

The “I” had what seemed like a teardrop. The “m” elegantly pointed to its right. The final stroke of the “b” seemed to pat the “o” like a man patting his dog. You just knew “r” was waving its hand at yourself. But there were only two letters that stood out from the note: the “y” from “you” and the “g” from “message”. Both letters had an unusually large loop that underlined the entire words they belonged to. It was like they were highlighted on purpose, like both words calling attention to themselves. There were gaping holes in them. Each could have been large enough for you to fall into and arrive at Wonderland with.

Both letters had an unusually large loop that underlined the entire words they belonged to.

It was like a desperate plea for help, to have someone write back.

Finally, someone said your present truth, you said to myself. You were bored, too. Simple as that. This could have been anyone as bored as yourself. Lizzy? Lilly? Leah? Laura? It didn’t matter. What mattered was spicing up your uneventful life beyond the four corners of that classroom.

You got out a piece of paper and wrote the best you could to match the handwriting. you replied:

Okay. I’m bored just the same. Humor me. –R

You underlined the word “me”. You never knew you would be taken that seriously.


The letters told you that this person was told to “muscle up,” how this person would go on putting on a mask and a cape for everyone. You didn’t know better but to imagine this person like the superhero every kid idolized. The way the note said “muscle” was every bit of the word strong with grace – a disjunction from the very handwriting this person used.

“It’s a social masquerade,” this person wrote. The stroke of this person’s “s” gaped a little wider now, like a real mouth parting to tell you something with a whisper, but this person’s “q” – now that was intense. The loop was long and sharp.

“Everybody’s got to put up an image, ‘di ba? Like Supergirl?” you replied.

“Exactly like her. Exactly like the living-up-to-the-expectations-of-others-like-my-cousin kind of person that she is.”

You felt bad for this person. You felt that those papers were the only form of consolation this person had, and the fact that, as a stranger, you would try your best to console this person. Maybe it was the lack of a face silently judging this person was the keyhole this person aimed for. Maybe it was the only way for this person to unlock what lay beneath the mask this person wore, a way for this person to say something and to be heard, or read, whichever applied. Maybe the thought of doing this was therapeutic to this person.

Was that how this person thought about it? Therapy?

You felt bad for this person. You felt that those papers were the only form of consolation this person had, and the fact that, as a stranger, you would try your best to console this person.

You remembered that time when you broke down. You were a Biology major at the time. You were at the tipping point, at your wits’ end. That damn professor, she had her own way with words, but it was that question that nearly got you insane. The answer was, drumroll, “water”. She went on by saying how sophomores like you should have known the answer was as simple as that and how every freshman knew it better than you did.

You felt the weight of your eyes sink a little deeper into their sockets, but it also seemed they were ready to pop out at any time. The dark circles around them could have contributed to the fact that they would disappear, falling deeper into the abyss of your body, or how it would roll out involuntarily. That would leave you to fumble around to find them – not just your eyes, your very vision, really.

Your curly hair was yet to be tamed and it mirrored the disaster you thought you were and your glasses were smudged. No matter how you slid your fingers past every single word of the Botany textbook, you were ten steps behind the lesson at-hand. It sucked never knowing the right answer. It broke you and your honor-student-wannabe self. You thought you could wear the honor student’s mask, but what stunned you was the fact that you had no chance at all to wear it.

At night, you could hear your heart beat uncontrollably fast. You had to press your thumbs hard onto your temples to ease the pain, but to no avail. You were moaning, too, but not out of pleasure. You tightly held onto the cold steel frame of your bed, hoping it would release the pain. There is no rest for the wicked, they say. You asked yourself, “Am I wicked? Do I deserve this?” But the pain garbled even the thought of asking the questions away. You curled in bed as a fetus does in its mother’s womb.

The morning you met the doctor, you met her with stillness. Your hands were kept on your lap, palms down. Your cracked lips were sealed shut and your hair was ruffled like a bush on one side. The soles of your shoes felt the surface of the granite floor. You fixed your eyes on her, hoping that the mere act of seeing her, the act of looking at her, would, in itself, constitute conversation, like telepathy. Her trained yet myopic eyes you deemed intelligent were not enough to probe a little deeper as to the nature of your distress. Your older brother fished out a one-thousand-peso bill for taking the trouble of staring at you. You got up and felt woozy. Then you caught the doctor say “confine”. You were led out by the nurse in attendance to the room you would fall asleep in.

You got better, eventually. But you think it was the exact same way for this person. The way the notes were exchanged was this person’s way of being authentic, for knowing the answers that this person might otherwise have not known. It was the only way of knowing that masking this person’s self was never the answer or that some masks were never meant to be ever worn.

Maybe this person knew that writing was the sole activity this person felt was safe enough to think this person’s thoughts through, that by writing down the questions, this person would eventually find the insanely simple, but never easy answers.

If this person felt like Supergirl, then you were this person’s Martian Manhunter – the telepath, trying to peer deep into this person’s subconscious and fall into the recesses of this person’s thoughts, the world this person thought existed, hidden behind this person’s beautiful penmanship. It was a form of honesty all on its own.


And you answered this person’s call. Always. And you were the idiot who believed this person.

This person started sending out longer notes. They were letters now and each word that this person wrote down started slanting toward the right. They were no longer heavily written, no longer etched even to the opposite side of the paper. This person was more open, more daring. The whispers of this person’s words were louder. You opened the wardrobe to Narnia. You were the Pevensie child now, lost in the wondrous world of Aslan’s kingdom – this person’s kingdom – one that this person dictated to me word-for-word.

This person’s words grew louder and louder that they sometimes sounded like they were battle cries. And you answered this person’s call. Always. And you were the idiot who believed this person.

This person asked me things like, “If you were a bird, what would you be like?”

You read the shift. You knew this person was interested in you.

“Probably a toucan. I’d always be the star of the show, arrogant with my big, bright beak. I’d hit some other bird ‘pag nabwiset ako,” you wrote back.

“That’s interesting. I’d be the flamingo – to upstage other birds with my pink plumage. I bet you’d be jealous and hit me with your beak. Mabibwiset ka.”

Your hand formed a fist to cover your mouth from the chuckling. This person had become brazen, unabashed, and bold. And yet…was it just because this person spoke on sheets of paper?


You picked up your sketchbook. You started with the geometric shapes. Near the center, you held your pencil lodged between your index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and drew a circle. The circle did not need to be perfect; just-fine was all it needed to be. That became its head. Next, just below the supposed head, you used a sweeping motion with your pencil to sketch an oblong. You straightened one side of the shape with a heavy line. This was the backside. Within this half, you used the rubber end on the paper to erase some of its ends to close the shape by guiding the charcoal end of your pencil to form a triangle. This was the body. Most of the time you found it still unnatural. You kept symmetry in mind. You switched your grip and let the pencil rest lightly on your index finger and your thumb and drew a smaller version of the shape within.

You added the details. You kept the charcoal from the pencil from shading too harshly on the paper. Below the first circle, you penciled two hook-like shapes – almost the same way beneath the bottom of the whole drawing. Finally, you curved every other line much like the complete opposite of my unruly hair.

You dropped your pencil in the drawer beneath your desk and marveled at your attempt in depicting this person as a bird. You contemplated the possibility of using oil pastels or watercolor and of using either auburn or forest green to breathe life to it. Still, you never did decide if it was a robin or a parakeet or even the common pigeon because of its stature. And there it stayed. Wide awake, you dreamed of it flying.


“We lost everything,” this person wrote to you.

You kept every single one of this person’s notes and letters beneath the bundle of receipts you’ve kept over the course of two months with most of them being bus tickets, movie tickets, and 7-Eleven receipts. Some of them were ripped from the ends of a notebook. Some of them came from edges of yellow pad paper. This came from a blue pad paper – one of the few that reached you in one piece.

“First, it was the pick-up truck, the one the family had been earnestly praying for a year now. The next was the house. Each time Mom and I did ask, all we got was a lousy, miserable ‘basta’ coming from him. My two brothers have forgiven him for his stupidity; I haven’t and I probably won’t. I knew something was up, with all his staying up all night. That’s where he was going – the casino. That wretched vice of his!”

This person proceeded to tell you in your angered Edwardian script how you were the sole soul who knew of this person’s situation and how valuable the “connection” was.

This was a conversation that should have been made during lunch. This person in front of you having sisig and you having sinigang to match the sourness of what this person said to you. You would, ideally, hold this person’s hand tight and say in the most empathetic voice you have, the one with a slight rasp that resembled a whisper, that “everything will be okay.” This person’s tears would be streaming down this person’s face and your handkerchief would be ready on-hand to wipe them away.

You would, ideally, hold this person’s hand tight and say in the most empathetic voice you have, the one with a slight rasp that resembled a whisper, that “everything will be okay.”

Still, the feeling that there was a huge chasm between this person and you was there, no matter how enamored you have become with the words this person so carefully crafted for you. This person sculpted them as Galatea was sculpted by Pygmalion. This person’s art was given life by Aphrodite – that same hypocritical goddess who disapproved of Cupid and Psyche. Come to think of it, Psyche’s tale was like yours.

By some wild chance, you discovered this person’s first note. It was like Zephyr gently lifting you off into the air and gently settling you down where a grand palace stood with its gates, open to welcome you. This person’s claim of boredom was Cupid’s voice that beckoned you into the palace’s master bedroom. You touched the intimacy of this person’s words in the darkness. The silent forbidden rule of not knowing this person’s identity was in place and you aimed to pick up the candlestick to reveal who this mysterious person was.

You did what people with common sense would do in situations like it. You tore off a piece of your favorite journal and wrote back:

Can we meet?


“I’m L. It stands for Luis.”

Luis? Luis? This person was my Cupid?

What you imagined was a girl with her black hair in pigtails in her pristine white blouse paired with doll shoes to complete the look. Here he stood in front of me, in front of these book shelves, in his dark blue jeans with his long hair slicked back and his white shirt. You heard the echo of a song you heard on the radio one hot afternoon: the story of us looks like a tragedy now.

From the shock, you ran to the restroom, blurring everything around yourself. His was the face you never expected. You could never reconcile it with his “words of truth”.

The seemingly unspoiled, untouched restroom was, in many ways, no more. Still, the mirrors shone with your reflection. You took deep, heavy breaths to feel your center; it was unfathomable. How could a jock write that way?

He followed you.

Nagulat ka ba?

“I don’t know what to say…”

“Thanks for finally meeting me. I thought you would never want to. After all, everyone’s comfortable talking to someone they don’t really know,” he said.

“Uh-huh…”

“Listen… Thank you for sending me the letters. I’m glad I could be myself when I wrote to you.”
Only the dripping faucet could be heard.

“So, that’s it?! We’re going to end it…just like that?!” you replied.

“Yeah.”

“You don’t just get to play with other people’s feelings and then leave them when you think you’re done!”

“What are you talking about? It was just about that, ‘di ba? Just fun…”

Para sa akin, hindi. Hindi lang ‘yun fun.”

“Who did you think I was ba? Some random person to pour your most personal thoughts into?”

“You poured them into me, remember? Besides, when we were sending each other letters, I thought we had something special. I thought you were…”

“A girl…”

Ano?”

“A girl…because of my handwriting…”

“Yeah…yeah. And I made the mistake of falling in love with that person I wrote letters to.”

Dripping…only the dripping water from the faucet echoed through the comfort room. It was as if the dripping water was the comfort room’s attempt to comfort itself, like it was designed to. More than that, the water, which should be held back by the faucet’s mechanisms, kept dripping steadily, like it was meant to continue on dripping, free from constraints.

Your hands firmly gripped the bottom side of the sink. You turned the knob of the faucet and began to wash your face with water while he stood unabashed, unfazed with your identity, like your identity was never a concern to you. You noticed how his face was clean, free from pimples and freckles other teens had. And somehow you began to mirror the relaxed, tranquil calm he had.

Still, the world he built with his words was the world you wanted to dwell in. It was his own Narnia – his. And you intended to stay in it till all of these dissipated to nothingness.

You grabbed him by his collar and pushed him to the wall. A groan escaped his thick, trouty mouth. You flipped the lights off. You tasted his very essence with a kiss. Your eyes were shut tight, enough to slide down the rabbit hole and into his Wonderland, enough to greet fauns “Merry Christmas” in his grand kingdom of Narnia, and enough to be on the pedestal from which Galatea stood when Aphrodite gave her life.

You pushed him away and left him in the darkness of the restroom, to wallow in the darkness of familiarity. You bathed in what seemed like heavy strobes of light, blinding yourself for a short while before recovering from it. A heavy torpor befell you as a car zipped past the front of the school’s heavy gates, its stereo loudly playing your favorite song:

Now I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand
All you have to do is close your eyes
And just reach out your hands and touch me
Hold me close don’t ever let me go
More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
‘Cause I’d already know

This is the price you pay for when you took someone’s words as jewels, when you held them all against the open, blinding, searing light. You realized that the heart, your heart, is deceitful above all things.


Hezekiah Louie Zaraspe is currently finishing his M.A. in Creative Writing at the UST Graduate School. He teaches language and literature classes at Miriam College Nuvali. His short stories, “Private Mirage” and “Nirvana”, have been featured by Miriam College’s “Bukad”. His poems have been published by Revolt Magazine. UP Manila’s forthcoming anthology, “Locked Down, Lit Up: An Anthology of Creative Work in a Time of Quarantine”, will feature his flash fiction piece, “Sleep is a Truce, Dreams its Succor”. Inquirer published his first essay in Filipino, “Pagbili ng barbecue, paglunok ng katotohanan”.

The Old Woman in White Helmet

One Tuesday afternoon an old woman in white helmet arrived at MRT3 North EDSA station. Her face was hidden in an egg-like head gear but it was easy to see that she was delicate: she had stooped back, sagging neck, tiny skeletal hands, and, showing under the helmet, feathery white hair. And so, in deference to her age (and to her strangeness), her fellow commuters give way to her.

A quick X-ray scan of the old woman’s belongings didn’t satisfy the authorities. The security staff muttered over their walkie-talkies. She was taken aside by a female guard. The old woman unclutched her brown shoulder bag and a whiff of sun-dried lavender escaped from it. The guard, like a dentist before an open mouth, prodded the inside of the bag using a stick. When asked to remove her helmet, the old woman shook her head. She leaned on her interrogator and whispered something to her. After that the guard let her proceed to the ticket booth.

A tap of card, a bleep, shifting of tripod. She passed through the turnstile and walked towards the center of the platform area, her light brown dress fluttering around her. Given the dull regularity of the day, attraction to novelty was understandable. The sun rose as expected, the fare was exactly as what it was yesterday. Nobody woke up in the morning and said, “Today, an old woman in white helmet will appear at the train station”. And so, at the sight of the old woman, a number of hands dove inside pouches and bags and re-emerged with smartphones. Thumbs started to glide left and right, up and down, right and left. Click!—the target was locked in. The people of the internet immediately christened the old woman in white helmet as the “Stormtrooper Grandma”, a name derived from an American science-fiction show.

The object of awe approached an unsuspecting person among the crowd.

“I’m thirsty.”

“Huh? What?” The lad, looking to be in his early 20s, looked up from his phone.

“I’m thirsty.” The old woman repeated.

Without any preamble she hooked her right arm to his arm and dragged the youth until his legs started to match the cadence of her steps. People’s eyes followed as the pair made their way out of the train station. They stopped at the sidewalk where street vendors were arched over wooden racks containing assorted merchandise—candies, stockings, eye brow pencils, charm bracelets, cigarettes, ballpens, hair accessories, cellphone trinkets, biscuits, children’s ABC cards.

The young man released himself from the old woman’s grip.

“I have to go now. I have work and—”

“Where do you work?”

“In Makati.”

The old woman nodded.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Eli.”

“Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”

The strange words were spoken with melancholic tenderness. He didn’t know what to say. Is that Latin? Is she a witch? He turned from her before she recite another spell and turn him into swine.

Overhead the train rumbled pass, reminding him of his bondage to schedule. He checked the time on his phone. Panic struck him. He remembered the biometric time clock at their office; the uncompromising device, with its uncanny ability to recognize and store the pattern of his thumbprint, was the only acceptable registration of his existence. There was no other way for him to live. His hands went cold. A gap in the timesheet could cost him his job. He walked away from the old woman in quick steps so he wouldn’t have time to linger on his terror. With feet heavy with indecision, he stopped at the foot of an overpass. Did he really want to see his coworkers today? Yesterday he found a folded fifty-peso bill taped on his computer screen with a note saying “Buy your own food, you glutton”. He knew he was the subject of every group chat inside the office after what happened the other day.

The strange words were spoken with melancholic tenderness. He didn’t know what to say. Is that Latin? Is she a witch? He turned from her before she recite another spell and turn him into swine.

Eli had consumed a slice of Hawaiian pizza that didn’t belong to him. He stole the food from the refrigerator at the pantry. Every break time, when nobody was around, he would throw open the door of the cooling equipment just to have a look inside it. He just wanted to read the sticky notes slapped on food packages. The shelves were jungles of smelly foils and half-torn boxes of food stacked carelessly on top of one another.

The pizza that destroyed him had the label “Rick”. He hid Rick’s food inside his shirt and ate it inside the men’s CR without guilt. Rick meant nothing to him. For Eli his coworkers were nothing but numbers. Therefore Rick was a disembodied entity—Employee 003475467, 76.1% sales performance, 82.76% client service, 97.25% attendance, 18, 000 monthly salary. Rick was unreal.

It wasn’t a perfect crime. A strip of pineapple on his hair had betrayed him.

Eli turned back. The old woman, who was still on the spot where he left her, was now circled by five people who were taking turns to have pictures taken with her. Eli must have looked like a raging bull because when the strangers saw him coming, they scampered away like rats. Choked with pity, he looked at the old woman without saying anything. He gently took her by her elbow. They went back together to the train station.

The collective weariness for the late train fanned the craze around the old woman in white helmet.

“The Stormtrooper Grandma!” Someone shouted in the platform. People craned their necks to see the curiosity. Eli barricaded the old woman from their gazes by standing close behind her.

Alas, the train arrived and opened its doors to take them in. He put an arm around his odd companion as they find their way to a seat.

He pondered about the billboards. A happy boy holding a can of corned beef. A happy man leaning on a plastic drawer. He had corned beef for breakfast, there were three plastic drawers at home, but he couldn’t remember smiling widely like the models. Next, an image of a statuesque lady in midnight blue gown as the foreground of a condominium, she was speckled with gold glitters for everyone to see—drivers, commuters, street sweepers, beggars. When the train stopped to load and unload passengers at Cubao station, a giant face of a young actress appeared outside the window. Her gigantic eyes were looking in from the outside, as if she was viewing a set of tiny human toys inside a miniature locomotive display. The text beside her image read: GlutaSheer Soap! Let the world see you! She was always up there, rain or shine, smiling invitingly to no one in particular. The product endorser evoked an ambiguous sense of proximity: Eli felt he could almost touch her face—porcelain-like, soft—but in actuality, he had to use a crane in order to reach her. She had the characteristic of a god; omnipresent and, at the same time, inaccessible.

Public space made it easier for him to imagine himself as floating outer space debris, a space junk swimming in expansive loneliness. He had to make himself an invisible helmet, an accessible retreat where he could be both present and absent in the world. Now, his usual astronautic daydream had lost its rocket fuel. Now, he crashed into the surface of a blue-green planet. He dove inside a mass transit somewhere in a sunny continent. Like a visiting extraterrestrial, he had to examine that portion of society for the very first time. In his own planet, people and trees were translucent and two-dimensional. In the new planet, it seemed possible to hate a person by having a close sight of black dots on his or her nose, or skin flakes accumulating on the sides of his or her mouth. Creases, lines, blotches of dark pigments. The substances oozing out from foreheads were repulsive like moisture created by bacterial action on spoiled food. The human epidermis was insulting; its bare state was a violation not only to the person being looked at but to the onlooker. His stomach began to churn a little. Every single day—inside jeepneys, trains and elevators—Eli could have body contact that was not body contact at all. His elbow would pierce the bulging waist of a person standing next to him. His prickly leg hair would tickle the bare leg of another person. The curve of his bottom would make indentation on a stranger’s abdomen. Physical closeness meant nothing. But now he was now incredibly aware of other people around him; probably because they were aware of him too. And it was because of the old woman in white helmet.

A new batch of commuters began to fill the aisle.

“That’s the Stormtrooper Grandma.” Someone whispered among the newcomers.

Like a group of coordinated snipers, a number of people stealthily focused the lenses of their camera devices on the old woman.

“I wonder what her face really looked like!”

It was spoken in brash loudness as a poorly disguised demand for an answer. A boulder of silence fell into the crowd; obviously, the weight was intended to put pressure on Eli, the only person who could calm the mental tics caused by the sensational sight inside the train. For some reasons other than his proximity to her, people were inclined to assume that he was a relative to the old woman. They all turned to him.

Eli scratched his cheeks when eyes started to crawl all over his face like tiny spiders. The eyes were so expectant of his response that even a twitch of his nostrils could bring pleasurable suspense to them. There was something inviolable in the eagerness of the eyes, with a gleam of importance, with a threat of tantrum. All over the world, sleek conference tables were stacked with proposals on how to slave the eyes. Eli understood that the attention around him was a form of currency. To shine in a one-man show, he needed to follow the unwritten script requiring him to remove the white helmet off the old woman’s head. The viewers wanted him to relieve them of the burden of wonder. They wanted him to destroy a mystery. They wanted to see, in high-definition quality, a centipede-like suture on a thin scalp; or, in close-up scale, watery blisters and red patches on a tiny wrinkled face. In other words, the spectacle in request was a horror show of aging and disease. The reality was a quick stab of needle on his heart: the mob, with their brains fattened with tabloid clippings of mass entertainment, was accustomed to the widespread prostitution of human experience.

For some reasons other than his proximity to her, people were inclined to assume that he was a relative to the old woman. They all turned to him.

Eli closed his eyes. The people around him disappeared. His restless eyeballs rolled under veiny eyelids. He was now a formless specter in an unknown cavern where there was only boredom. His boredom with billboards. His boredom with his work. His boredom with the people inside the train.

I want to kill myself.

The old woman put a hand on Eli’s head; her priestly gesture appeared to be an expression of telepathic understanding. The suicidal young man melted under her palm. His eyelids became heavy. Inside his bag, his phone started to vibrate frantically—it meant the supervisor was now aware that there was one dead computer screen among the hectic flashes of LED panels. One swivel chair with no clothed body in it. Eli didn’t open his eyes. His consciousness was a candle fire licking itself into dissolution.

When he opened his eyes he found himself inside the control area of a ship. He played a little with the switches and buttons of a panel board. There was a spectacular view of the blue sea through a porthole at the center of the wall. An island was taking shape in the horizon. Below him, the sway of the sea was gentle like the heaving chest of a sleeping infant. He left the compartment and marched along a hallway of empty box-like cells. He went into the deck of the ship where he received a refreshing spray of brine. The sky was abundant with clouds. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bird landed on his right shoulder and pecked his right cheek.

“Stormtrooper Grandma! Stormtrooper Grandma!” The animal squeaked.

The head of the speaking bird morphed into a tiny human face. The bird-human had bulging eyes and its tiny mouth looked like a neat cut of blade. In sinister elfin voice, the chimera started to laugh maniacally. Eli grabbed its neck with his hands, his fingernails digging deeper and deeper into its throat until one of its eyes popped out from its socket. Next he pounded the animal repeatedly—Blag! Blag! Blag! He threw the kill at a metal post and watched it slither down like a tear.

It is finished, Eli said.

“Wake up! This is the last train station!”

“Sir? This is the last train station.” A persistent voice finally registered in Eli’s consciousness. He thought there was an earthquake for he was moving back and forth in his seat. The security staff stopped shaking him when he raised his two hands. He was the only passenger left inside the train. The old woman in white helmet was gone. He stepped out of the train and looked hungrily around him. Neon lights, lampposts, cars, and human eyes were all lit up. The only trace of the sun in the sky was a receding red-orange pool. The concrete world had cooled off during his sleep, and he longed to remove his shoes to feel the damp coldness against his feet. But first he had to check if his feet were really flat on the ground for he felt like he was levitating.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com

The Nature of Cat and Woman

“…So that man pinches his nose as he examines himself, and along with Pope Innocent III disapprovingly draws up an inventory of his repulsive characteristics (‘unclean conception, disgusting form of nourishment in the mother’s body, base quality of the material from which man develops, appalling stench, secretion of saliva, urine, vomit’)”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Translation by Douglas Smith)

The organ drooping from his groin looked like an animal embryo without eyes and ears. Boxed by the light coming from the lamppost outside the window, it glowed like a weird specimen in a dark laboratory. So this is what it looks like in real life, she thought. She had seen it from pornographic videos. This man’s part—it really looked like a dumb ancient life form in real life.

They were silent. She tried to make out his face in the darkness; but it remained an oval void, an immaterial blackness. He pulled the bed sheet to him and hid his nakedness under it. He rolled around the bed in a sulking manner, with his back to her, then scrolled up and down his phone, the rectangular glare emitted by it illuminated the outline of his ruffled head. She could finally wipe her mouth, one hard swipe using the back of her hand. From the smear emanates the menthol tang of cigarette, not strong enough to overpower a hint of putrefaction, she imagine tiny shreds of week-old meat lodged imperceptibly in between his teeth. His saliva was poison. She could kill this guy, she thought. He is disgusting as fuck.

She put on her blouse and panties. The mattress was stiff and thin so it didn’t squeak as she got off the bed and went straight to the door. She stood just outside the wooden frame with a sense of waking up from a dream—yes, I am in Rick’s apartment, yes, that’s the staircase, I’m going down, I am going to the bathroom, I will wash myself, I will wash off the smell. With a hand still around the door knob, she steadied herself, somewhat scared the square of tile she was standing on would give way. Dots of light started to dance before her eyes—probably because of the prolonged exposure to darkness—and there was a ringing hollowness in her ears. How long since I’ve been here in this place? As if jerked forward by an invisible string, she jolted away from the door.

Two or three cockroaches started to scramble away into hiding as the sound of her footsteps drew nearer. Apparently the bugs had been feasting on that night’s pizza leftover; the takeaway box was left spread out on the square plastic table—an old dining fixture in mint green, likely to be a discard from Rick’s parents, its surface freckled with yellow brown islets of cigarette burns. Her heart was thumping in cadence with the dripping of the leaky faucet; the snout slightly greenish with moss. In the air was a division of smell: the whiff of soap and shampoo emanating from the bathroom, and the sulfuric odor of the LPG tank and the gas stove; the cooking equipment being just a breadth of wall away from the toilet bowl. The flaps of an empty box of spicy noodles on the floor were trembling with an unending string of ants. She peeled off a cockroach wing plastered on the sole of her foot then flicked it off.

On the little heart-shaped mirror hanging above the ceramic washbasin inside the bathroom, she examined her face. On her right cheek there was a barbecue mesh pattern, possibly an imprint from the banig sheet of the bed. There was a tiny flake of dried tear on the corner of her left eye. Her pores were tensed and large and there was no shine of moisture on her pale face. In these past few years she had been feeling like an outsider in her own body; her materiality becoming nothing more than an empty shell. When she was making love earlier (if she could call it that way) she became a spirit hovering over her own physical form; and while floating up the ceiling, she saw her persona locked in a pretzel-knot with a stranger in the bed. She thought it was a pity to see and it needed to stop. The body on its own knew how to mimic intimacies derived from erotic movies, but the mind—her mind—had no idea how to connect to the flesh. Is it only a global marketing, the unconscious rapture of the merging bodies? But she became as conscious as ever, never forgetting herself! And now this mirror image of hers became a silicone android head animated by the self-loathing of the person it had been taken after. A dent appeared in between the sweat matted brows. The corners of the lips curled downwards. It opened its mouth, and, with its forefinger, hooked the left side of the lips, stretched it, nail against the inside of the cheek, and exposed, shamelessly, a rotten molar; the unsightly tooth was her reassurance that time had really passed, that she really had an organic form that could disintegrate, that she had a past and a story as a child who once ate a lot of candies. She is real.

She thought about what had happened earlier. The first thrust had been painful for her. It was her first time. She pried him away from her body using her arms, then put her legs together. She almost punched him in the face. She said: I want to go home. He clucked his tongue: tsk. Then the thing went limp. There was guilt in frustrating male physiology when it was at its peak (she read about it when she was in college studying psychology, the term “vasocongestion”, the role nitric oxide plays in it, Masters and Johnson’s sexual response cycle…etc.) Should she make it up to him? Curl up in his arms, babble like an infant, start all over again? Should she say sorry to him? Why? Was it her fault? Was there something wrong with her?

A thick layer of invisible grime made her skin feel heavy, but the sight of the glistening pail of water did not excite her now. To try to rouse delight in herself, she turned on the faucet and placed a hand under the spout; the feel of the gushing water used to make her giggle when she was a little girl. But her hands felt like it didn’t belong to her. Bowing, she held the dipper over her head, one hand wiping the cascading water from her eyes. An itchiness that was not physical, this senselessness, this nothingness, this meaninglessness. She knelt down and embraced the pail of water, dipped her whole head into it, held her breath in it for a few seconds, emerged from it panting, her mouth in perfect O after the suicidal feat. She stood up, hair dripping wildly like leaves amid rainstorm, made a passing glance at the mirror, walked out of the bathroom.

Ten foot stamps of dark wetness stained the floor, a trail starting from the bathroom and ending near the small sofa where a maroon shoulder bag was perched on its armrest. Like a mystical eye a 40-inch flat screen TV screwed on the wall reflected on its black screen the ghostly lingering of her movements; she had the stealthy move of a house burglar. I want to disappear, she said.

On WikiHow her recent search had been “How to Disappear Completely (with pictures)”. Choose to leave in a responsible way if you’re an adult, the first entry stated below a graphic of a blond female in candy pink sleeves and blue jeans opening the door with her back to the reader. The slice of white bed cutting the view of her legs was a clue to her relationship status: its practical bareness suggested she was in a temporary accommodation, probably in a cheap hotel or in a boarding house. The uprootedness of a single and childless woman in the city—you can’t call her anything, she’s not a “wife” or a “mother”. She is a wraith trying to become everything. And this Wikihow girl was trying to build something she could call her own. The sleek luggage she was dragging behind her suggested she was a woman with her own means. Must have been twenty-eight years old like her. Marshmallow blue scarf wound around her neck, this girl had an interesting wardrobe. In the pastel colored world, the aspiring hermit, who she imagined to have been a fashion blogger taking a break from bullies on the internet, had been advised by an invisible moral judge to give consideration to the legal implications of hiding, and to think about the feelings of her family and friends in her mission to disappear. You would have to pay the cost of a search mission if the world had initially thought you had been kidnapped.

You will need money, the how-to website also said.

Money. Police. Feelings of other people. The hassle of ceasing to exist.

Her jeans, a cocoon she had been forced to shed behind as she was sucked out by the heat of lust, were splayed out on the seat like a passed-out drunk lying on a ditch along the side of a road, and bleached by the mellow light coming from the thinly curtained window. She scooped it up and put it on.


— Hi. You are?

— Kamatayan.

— Interesting.

The paper mache teats on the ceiling representing stalactites were studded with tiny bulbs projecting blue and yellow beams crisscrossing over fifty heads, giving them sick green sheen. The center of the floor, which had been cleared of tables and chairs, was marked with a large pentagram; an indication that something grand will happen on that spot later that night. At the third table at the back, there was Pennywise the clown with a plate of nachos on his frill-cuffed hand, and at the fourth table, Annabel the doll, posing with her peers in front of a camera. The darlings of Americanized culture, the snob dismisses them. If you want something classic, be archetypal, allegorical, folkloric, biblical. Black and mysterious and elegant. To still appeal to the modern, the cape that is part of the costume should have a slit high enough to allow the “accidental” flashing of the stockinged legs of the wearer.

— And you are?

— Just Rick. He winked and chuckled.

Plain Rick with no caking zombie prosthetics or blood-colored tears, just a grey T-shirt over his leanness. Pudgy fingers, arms not muscular but not chubby, no strong fragrance, round jaws, chin-length hair. He looks neat. Ummm…okay.

In his right hand, deep caramel black bottle of liquor, in the other, cellphone. He sat on a chair opposite hers, cross-legged, the tip of a foot pointing at her direction. Take note of his non-verbal language, she thought. She had read somewhere it was a surefire sign of flirting (10 BODY LANGUAGE SIGNALLING A GUY IS INTO YOU).

— You think I have no costume, but I have one. I am the absurdity of life. He raised the tip of the bottle to his stubbly upper lip.

For his comic effort, she put a hand behind her mouth, drew in air, then produced nasal sounds—snort, snort, snort—with her shoulders trembling. Rick’s eyes shone, the inner light of pleasure of making a girl laugh. He, he, he—he laughed, too, then took a swig straight from the bottle. She turned her head left and right, right and left, then she smoothed out imaginary creases on her black skirt. Her fear of her lipstick wearing off makes her squeamish in her seat; she wanted to check her reflection on her compact mirror but she didn’t want to appear vain before her acquaintance.

— Well, Kamatayan, what are you thinking?

He might have sensed her discomfort, she thought.

— Well…

— Look around, they’ve all ended up as mass produced Hollywood merchandise.

He smirked.

— Exactly my thoughts…

— By the way, what’s your real name?

— Well…you can call me—

— Do you fear death?

— No. I think death is not the opposite of—

— That’s true. I’m comfortable with the idea of dying, I mean, in a Zen way. Why do you think people fear death?

— Be-because…

— Shall we find another place? Too noisy here. He pointed the bottle toward the other tables. The one in wolf costume there, yes, the one with the shaggy head and fangs… that’s the event organizer. What a suiting costume when you control the funds.

She nodded.

Her tongue began searching for the rotten tooth. Its tip feeling the ragged edges of the damaged enamel, the exposed root, the fossil of pre-pubescent neglect that had clung into her until adulthood.

— Excuse me, Rick.

She put her scythe inside her bag and stood up.

— No problem.

She followed a procession of girls and ended up in the comfort room where there is a bustling retouch sessions of mummies and murderers—a fresh press of powder here and there, a replenishing eye drop here and there. She had a full view of her face on the mirror. Her lipstick had been fine. Solid, matte, berry red. She was fine. That guy, yes. He wasn’t really interested in her, she decided. We’ll see! She went out of the comfort room.

Instead of returning to the table where Rick was waiting for her, she went straight to the Wolf, who, upon seeing her, thought she had mistaken him for someone. The Wolf raised a hand to his friends and gave his whole attention to her.

— Yes? He smiled.

— I will join the challenge. She said.

— Very well, come and register.

Thirty minutes into the party, the music faded out. The murmurings died down. Lights zeroed in on the neon pentagram at the center of the dance floor.

— Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the visceral fiesta challenge. Happy Halloween!

Cheers.

A coffin-shaped tub was wheeled in; in it was a naked man swimming in thick red spaghetti sauce. He was wearing a necklace of longganisa. In no time, liquor-scalded stomachs grumbled unanimously, longing for meat, longing for bestial satiation. There were four competitors, including her, whose task was to collect as many golden coins as they could within twenty seconds using their mouths. The coins were scattered all over the man-salad.

She combed her hair upwards using her hands and knotted the heap into an explosive bun at the back of her head.

— Look, she’s tying up her hair! The host jeered.

— Eat the meat! Eat the meat! Eat the meat!

She shoved her face into the marinated flesh on spotlight with her hands behind her. The horde formed a circle around the make-believe cannibal spectacle and raised their smartphones over their heads. If they would just stand in quiet solemnity, if they would just focus a little, they would hear from her tongue the dainty sound of life without its sublimity–shlerp, shlerp, shlerp. They raced to capture the moment in their gadgets, and, after just a few minutes, hundreds of people who weren’t even there at the venue knew what she did.

The red sauce, thinned by tap water, snaked into the drain and left a faint smudge on the white tiles, living an impression of a careless murder cover up. She dried off her refreshed face with a ply of rough tissue then re-applied makeup, snail face crème as primer for the BB cream, then dewy strawberry lip tint to sooth her cracked lips. When she was sure there was no trace of the night’s revelry left on her, she exited from the comfort room. Some chairs and tables were already stacked up. Five people were huddled together on the floor, all drunk and in intense discussion on whose house they would sleep in over night. She just brushed past the Wolf who is busy talking to someone on the phone.

The real dark world outside was glistening with wetness. The skyline was obliterated by skyscrapers, with tiny windows glittering like the eyes of nocturnal animals merging in the silhouette of the jungle. Stirred by an earlier rain, the city’s air particles, big enough to be seen by human eyes, were exposed by the light beams coming from lampposts; she was like that right now: an atom suspended in the lacuna of reality, light and very contented. A lot of people tried to talk to her after the challenge. Some simply smiled at her. She relished on the memory with one arm hugging her trophy: a plastic lion figurine spray-painted in bronze. She had been hailed as the night’s “Visceral Queen”. The ecstatic feeling made her forget everything for a while; about Rick (who immediately left the party after getting her number), about a job interview tomorrow, about…Chabelita.

Oh no! It was cruel of her to leave a pregnant animal imprisoned in the house for the whole day with nothing to eat. Chabelita had been fooling around with neighborhood cats recently.

A 24-hour convenience store is a romantic addition to this story; for its round-the-clock accessibility means the character could always find what she’s looking for at any given time of the day. Be it a can of tuna for a cat a few minutes to midnight. The process of canning and distribution of the fish had started a few days ago, beginning in an ocean hundreds of nautical miles away, and ending in the shelves, staying there until the character reaches for it. That’s why it’s special: it is meant for her. We add a faceless and nameless male crew holding a barcode scanner, shove him behind the counter and make sure he attend to Emma’s purchase, the can of tuna and two bags of potato chips (something to snack on when she settle on her bed and read Facebook and Twitter comments about her “cannibalism video”). Then, when she return at the venue of the party, make sure a white sedan was parked at the other side of the street. Her Grab driver, waiting for her.

Glory to the world. To the world that is pre-arranged, predictable, accessible, kind.


She arrived to her unit one o’clock in the morning. There was a folded paper rammed under the door. Notice of disconnection from Meralco. She slid the billing statement inside her shoulder bag. Ticket price of the event, Maybelline Super 24-hour matte lipstick, sexy Halloween costume she ordered in Lazada, fare to and from Quezon City—that week’s budget, all gone to the costume party. Will her mother lend her money to pay for the electricity?

She unlaced her three-inch platform heels. She unlocked the door with her keys then pushed it open. She almost stumbled to a pyramid of empty cups of instant ramen on the floor before reaching for the light switch.

— Pssss…pssss…Chabelita?

She held her nostrils high. The smell was not nice.

There were clothes scattered on the floor, and at the middle of the disarray, Chabelita was licking her right paw gracefully like an aristocrat dabbing her lips in fine dining. The spectacle of pet misbehavior seemed to have been the work of a sinister ghost strong enough to topple the laundry basket and tear the curtain off the window during her absence. The diabolical gloss of Chabelita’s black fur, now enhanced by the florescent light, completed the supernatural feel of the moment.

— Mingming?

The animal looked up, the pupils of her yellow-blue eyes constricting into reptilian slits as they brave the light.

— What have you been eating?

Chabelita’s feast was scattered on the floor. At first glance they looked like severed fingers of a human adult. Look closely and see the four newborn kittens, flesh-pink and delicate, all headless and speckled with black ants.

— Eeeh!

The cat was fast enough to instinctively jump from thing thrown at her by her shocked owner. The lion figure, the keepsake from the party, bounced from the floor then lied dumb and paralyzed.

She rushed to the toilet and locked herself inside. With a trembling hand, she fished her phone from her bag and dialed her mother’s number.

— Hello? Mama, please, come over…come over, please…

— My God, what is happening there?”

— He-help me…hu-hu-hu!

In between the sobs, she explained what happened. She was assured by her mother that she will drop by tomorrow to clean up the massacre.

Her cape and skirt bunched up at her waist as she squatted on the toilet seat, her inner thighs in obtuse angle, her elbows resting on knees. She wiped off her tears with her hands. Outside the door, faint meowing. What could have gone wrong with Chabelita’s maternal instincts? Was she that hungry? She didn’t want it anymore, that evil thing.

WHY CATS EAT THEIR OWN BABIES—she was typing on the Google search bar on her phone when a notification popped up.

Bing! Swipe down. A Facebook request from Rick. Adding a potential lover on social media needed a special kind of budget. She uploaded a photo of her cat lying languidly on a pillow, front paws crossed.

For sale: cat, female.


But maybe, she could try to disappear only this time, just only this time. But in consciously trying to disappear, she still feels the nagging sense of self, ever present, ever aching. Maybe she could do something different. An experiment: to “transfer” invisibility to someone else, as in a mental super power. Instead of herself, she will make her male acquaintance upstairs disappear (surely he was now asleep by now). To do that she needed to forget him immediately. Existence is just memory.

Her wet shirt was plastered on her body like a vacuum-sucked plastic bag. She put on her jeans, reached for her bag. She unbolted the front door. Chill air burst from the gap.

She closed the door behind her. Once you let yourself to be just lonely, and to just step out there in the open space, unthinking, brave, you will smell, for the first time, the metallic stench of the rock and soil and decaying bits of nature under your shoes. You become a dog, or any hunting animal you like, in this hyper-sensory state. Once outside Emma breathed in the air. She closed her eyes: she “located” a nearby ditch where a particular smell was coming from.

She hadn’t checked the time; maybe it was around ten in the evening. She passed by three houses, all quiet, except for the ruffled murmurings of television. She was led by her nose to the right side past the first street lamp, to a narrow canal alongside the concrete sidewalk, where, beyond iron gratings flow all imaginable household residues made creamy by sediment dregs of rainwater. Look down through it, see the twinkling satin of blackness. She sniffed. Rotten egg cured in wood smoke, to describe the smell.

Using her nails, she plied open the back casing of her smartphone, it broke off in a crisp rasp. What was the last message on her Messenger inbox? Fourth house. Bring food. And from unknown men who watched her video from the Halloween party: Hi, sweetheart…or, Eat this (photo of penis attached).

With her back to a lamppost, her shadow ballooned on the wall enclosure standing in right angle across the length of the canal, a six-foot sheet of corrugated iron scarred with peeling posters of candidates from the last municipal election; opposite her was a half-torn face of a man with one eye gaping at her. Seen from afar, she looked like she was vomiting on the sidewalk, and her bent knees implied agony.

With one hand keeping her hair away from her face, she carefully slid the disassembled gadget into the reeking darkness like a piece of meat for a sewer alligator.

Plok.


She had made holes on an empty electric fan box using a barbecue stick, tucked in the folds of the other opening and made an X over it with a thick masking tape to secure them. For three days leading to her sale, Chabelita lived in this dark tunnel, an inmate isolated for her scandal. For three nights leading to the sale of her cat, she had had nightmares. The recurring theme of her dreams was escape. She was trying to find the exit of an abandoned building, trapped inside the eerie grayness that spoke of incompleteness, with rusty wires festooning the cracked ceiling like vines. She didn’t know what she was running from.

One day she peeped into the cat-cave to check on the animal. Claws fanned out, forearms straight, the cat, like playing a piano, was gently pressing her paws on the rags she was lying on, her eyes closed, her mouth making sucking sounds. She shook her head.

Cat. Oh, her cat. Around a thousand pictures of her cat now gone: her cat in the sink lapping tap water, atop the bookcase seeking adventure, in the bed grooming herself. Her phone was gone, too. The phone she paid in installment for twelve months, and was now traversing the artery of a residential waste-blood.

The cat was not normal, her pathology kept secret from the buyer. What kind of mother would try to eat their own offspring? But then, she couldn’t deny a feeling of sympathy for her cat: whatever “disease” her cat had been suffering from had also infected her. She knew in her heart, if she had been impregnated by that guy, she would have also eaten her own babies.

CAT KNEADING BEHAVIOR REASON—she typed on the search bar one day. Then the results. They are reliving the memory of their kittenhood, the god-expert said. When they were safe and warm as they massaged mama’s nipples for a squirt of milk.


When the traffic went to a halt, she had a moment of watching a road construction in progress through the jeepney window. An excavator was breaking the surface of a concrete section, the drilling sounded like a successive blasting of a machine gun. The arm of the machinery was the tail of a gigantic scorpion with the venom-needle at its end jabbing repeatedly the hole of the earth. She shuddered and squeezed her bag, which was nestled on the nook of her arms like an infant. When she got home, she undressed and took a long bath.

The next day she did something she had been meaning to do for many years. She secured an appointment with a dentist. The clinic was located in a small commercial building along the McArthur Hiway in Bocaue. It was easy to spot because of its bright green facade, she was told on the phone (newly bought). At the second floor, a narrow glass door was wedged between a secondhand clothing store and a computer shop; displayed outside of it was a fading posters showing different crookedness and alignment of teeth. The conspicuousness of the place gave an impression of quackery; but the sight of a woman in white coat walking to and fro inside dispelled distrust.

Lying on a reclining chair bathed in glare was the psychological equivalent of a twelve-year-old boy undergoing circumcision, fearful but consoled by masculine pride. Within us there’s a medieval sense of glory in gore, especially if we willfully subject ourselves to hurt. After all, it is the supreme sense of being alive we are after.

— Open please…just tell me if it hurts…

The stab in the gum was blunt. She closed her eyes. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Her head was tightly held in place by the assistant’s tender hands. The procedure was painless due to the anesthesia; but even if her nerves had been dulled, she keenly felt the aggression of a metal instrument inside her mouth as it tried to tear the tooth out. The dentist crooned softly as she pulled the tooth.

Pull…pull…pull—pull!

A stream of nervous excitement swelled from her abdomen, concentrated on her groin like a hot energy, then it branched out into her hips and legs, and when it reached her feet, her toes fanned out like bird wings. Pure being burst forth. She let out a long muffled moan.

It was over. Her eyes were glinting with happiness, her mouth dripping with saliva and blood.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com

Raphael’s Circles

I

The man is wearing black goggles connected by a long wire to a small computer display screen like that of an ATM. Inside the compartment, which resembles a telephone booth, he is turning his heads slowly from side to side, as if he had been left disoriented after waking up from a vivid dream. He is like blind person trapped inside a coffin, she thought. He swung back, removed his visual device, and nod at her. She walked on.

Adjacent to the room is a space furnished with shiny wooden furniture. This must be the lounge, she decided. She settled herself in one of the mahogany seats around a table. Suddenly the man he met earlier entered. Seeing that there are no other people inside the room, he locked eyes with her and smiled shyly.

“My son won in tennis.” He said to her even before his posterior touches the seat. His eyes are afire with paternal pride. “My son won in tennis”, he repeated.

Elisa felt the sides of her mouth stretch, a muscular effort she hoped to appear as a gesture of politeness, a smile. A proud parent could go on talking for years about their child’s achievement, be it as seemingly small feat as defeating a computer programmed tennis opponent; and before a simple chat turn into a full-blown genealogical account of success and suffering, anyone who is held captive by that parent should find an immediate way to escape. Elisa pulls a pamphlet from a pile of reading materials on the table and skims over its contents with studied interest. Neuro Play Center—Philippine-first virtual reality rehabilitation, the first page boasts. A fun world of simulation for people with cognitive disability or developmental disorder…Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, brain injury…Programs for real life skills…Speech, eye contact, socialization…Integration to mainstream society…Partnership with big companies for employment program…

“Ma’am Elisa? I’m Gil. I called you yesterday.” A young man about her age, beaming in white polo shirt and sky blue pants, arrived in the lounge carrying a document case. He bowed slightly and smiled at her in a manner that is so self-assured yet a little bit theatrical, as if he practices it every night in front of the mirror—the same enthusiastic disposition she observed in the woman in a formal coat, who is talking to the man whose son had won in tennis. Congratulations! Your son has passed 16 of the 18 key areas of competencies, she overheard the woman saying to the father.

Gil extended his free hand for the visitor to shake. After the formalities he sat on the seat on her left and laid the case on the table.

After giving tribute to Raphael— shy, nice, well-loved by the staff in Neuro Play—he delivered the purpose of the meeting: Raphael’s grieving parents want to send you their son’s artworks to her.

“Sorry for the inconvenience. I understand you have classes today.” He gently re-arranged the cases on the table in a manner of a salesman presenting a product. “Stephen Wiltshire, Robert Wawro—do you know them? They were artistic savants. I like reading about them. I have this feeling that Raphael was one of them.”

She asked how Raphael died.

“An accident”, he said, at last, after an uncomfortable gap.

Six in the morning. The students were already lining up at the mess hall for breakfast. Raphael was still inside the boy’s quarter on the third floor of the building, alone in a bunk bed. He might have seen something fascinating outside the window, perhaps a scintillating airplane disappearing into clouds—no one could attribute any meaning to the event. Whatever it was, it made him lean out from the opening, his abdomen pressed hard against the ledge, his feet rising from the floor. A thud rang across the place—chatty noises across dining tables quieted down, spoons stopped short of entering mouths. Staff members rushed upstairs. When they opened the door, they saw a slipper on the edge of the window sill.

She did not know what to say; so she heeded the rule of emotional propriety and, using a low voice, said, “Condolences to his family.”

“These are really for you. His artworks spanning six years” He tapped on the paper tag.

A word is scribbled in thick, wobbly letters: EALESA.

The misspelling of her name conjures up an image of a hand holding a pen, a hand struggling to discipline tumultuous thoughts in order to contain them within the box of literacy.

Memory is ephemeral. It is meant to die. An insect bite, a buzz of the wind, a vibration, a minute chemical reaction, or any force from without passing into the sensory threshold, were sent into the brain, and then erased forever. A jolt, then nothingness. But there is one type of memory that has organs and blood of its own, and has a command of its own dormancy and resurrection: trauma. Under this presumption, Elisa’s memory of Raphael should be indelible. He used to hurt her.

She tried to remember the couple who adopted her when she was ten years old. Middle-aged? In their late 30s? Was the wife plump and the husband stick thin like caricatures in TV gag shows?

II

Elisa lived with the See family in 1998. She was ten years old that time. After his father deserted their family for another woman, her mother took her and her two brothers to Manila where she had a relative who could help her find a job. That relative happened to be the laundrywoman of the Sees, a middle age couple who had a child of Elisa’s age. There was no available work for her mother in the house. Instead the couple offered to adopt her for an undetermined period of time. Her mother agreed.

Raphael was a destroyer. Elisa had to trail behind his heels and clean after him. She had to pick up any fragments of broken objects he left on the floor, how ever small, like a spring from a clock. She had to mop trails of liquid from bottles of cosmetics he had squeezed. His hands knew no value; a decorative jar and a water pitcher could suffer the same fate in his hands, bent or smashed beyond repair. Some of the targets of his random aggression, like the stuff toys whose cotton-filled stomachs he gutted, would take an extra effort to mend.

He had also tried to break her. During the first week of her stay in the house she endured the following from him: punches, head butts, elbows, kicks. After suffering from his outburst, she would retreat into a corner and wipe her tears using the tail of her skirt. He was a towering threat ready to crush her at any given time. However, it was not his physical advantage that made her decide not to fight back; rather, it was because of his parents.

An abandoned child at the care of strangers could develop an almost extrasensory sensitivity to what is not being said. A change in voice intonation or a sigh could hold important information about the child’s place in the world. Any time she could eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation inside the house, for she was invisible to them most of the time, even if she was sitting with them around the dinner table. They talked about the telephone bill, misplaced keys, leather belts, the problems in “the department”, Raphael’s check-up with “Doc Gina”. From what she understood from the beginning, there were two arrangements for her: first, she would not attend school and, second, she would serve as their son’s “companion” while they were away at work. She gratefully accepted her place, as long as she could enjoy television and pancakes.

The major injury she ever got from Raphael was a bite. It happened when she tried to touch one of his Lego blocks. He kicked the toy away, grabbed her right arm, and burrowed his teeth into its flesh. The pain made her close her eyes and bit her tongue. She didn’t push him away. When she let out a cry, he withdrew from her and saw the blood oozing from her skin. After a few seconds he disappeared into another room and emerged from it holding a clothes hanger. He walked up to her and put the tool of revenge into her hand without looking at her face. He gestured to her: hit me. He offered his open palms to her. She shook her head. The game was called vindictive justice and he had learned it from his maids (normally a maid would stay for three weeks then quit), from his mother, his father, his relatives. Eye for an eye. It contradicted the idea of choice that she presented to him that day when he bit her; the idea that she, as a person, could decide not to hurt him. It was the first and last time he bit her.

They couldn’t do without each other ever since she gained his confidence. They had to maintain a system. Every day was an opportunity to do and undo things. In partnership they put their little world into checks and balances. She became the creator and he the destroyer. She makes miniature furniture set out of milk carton, he flattens it with his hands. She makes bubbles using dishwashing liquid, he pops each one of them. She makes a flower necklace, he untangles it. She make a robot of clothespins, he snaps them apart. She makes a wall of pillows, he plows it down. For all of her efforts that went to waste, she didn’t feel mad at him. They laugh together as they watch the things she made fall apart.

III

One day, she found out that he couldn’t even write his own name. His crayons were all broken and the coloring books were all torn up. When she asked him to write his name within the red and blue lines of a grade school paper, his pencil skidded like an amateur ice skater. All he could produce on a paper were tangled lines. She devised a plan to teach him how to draw shapes: connecting the dots. She thought he had to learn how to draw a circle first. When he tried to draw without guide, he finally managed to draw a perfect circle. She clapped her hands. He shrieked with joy. He drew dozens more.

His newfound ability led to days consisted mainly of two delicate sounds: the friction of crayon on paper, and the chirping of little birds outside the window. She became a mesmerized spectator to this sudden display of talent. Her role was to provide him with fresh supplies of papers from a cabinet full of old receipts and billing statements. She found the opportunity to study him closely during his state of fixation. She marveled at his ivory cheeks and soft wavy hair. He had puppy eyes with long lashes. His lips were pink and glossy, always apart, with pearly big front teeth showing. She could imagine the sweet sour smell of candies and rice inside his mouth. And look at her—she had wild hair with lots of lice, and there were many fresh scabs of wounds all over her thin legs. With the feel of soft mattress every night and scrub of milk bath soap every morning, she could achieve his looks.

Then she noticed something more: something dynamic was taking place behind his forehead as he drew; it could be inferred from the restlessness of his eyes. He wasn’t drawing circles—he was herding and aligning the shapes into an orbit, then stirring them into a spiral like bodies governed by the mysterious forces of the universe. The resulting pattern was like a close-up view of the center of a flower, spores afire with colorful hues.

There was also a curious outcome of his creative preoccupation: he suddenly lost his interest in destroying things.

She would show his artworks to Sir and Madam when they arrive from work. Very good, they would say to her. Very good.

IV

“Do you want to try the goggles?”

Elisa nodded.

He led her inside one of the compartments in the Viewing Room, and helped her put the device around her head. He clicked on something.

“What do you see?”

“I see seven people lining up to a cashier register with their baskets. They’re also wearing goggles like me. It looks like they are inside a grocery store. I see shelves full of milk boxes. The milk boxes are pixelated. Everything is pixelated. Are they inside a computer game?”

“What you’re seeing right now is a real-time view of our simulation facility.”

“Isn’t this place your facility?”

“No, this is just our corporate office. The physical facility is in somewhere else.”

She turned her head to the direction of his voice as if to encourage him to tell her more about what she’s seeing.

“At first look the pupils are just buying supplies in a simulated grocery store, that they are merely having fun with those make-believe milk boxes. In the process they’re using basic computational skills and learning how to budget money. They are learning practical skills needed to survive in society.”

“How long they’ll be staying in the facility?”

“Until they become eligible to our employment program. We have partnered with major corporations who are willing to give people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a chance to lead a normal life. In some cases their guardians opt to make them stay in the facility for an indefinite period of time.”

Indefinite. She wonders if the pupils can imagine the boundlessness of time. Are they like an average person who sees time as falling into neat categories of “old” and “new” and “long” and “short”?

“You can press here to navigate other parts of the facility.” He guided her left hand to a protruding button at the side of the device.

There is a classroom with boards and walls composed of small tiles of squares. The plants, the leaves and flowers, all have jagged edges, all made of squares. Ten adults are sitting on chairs. A robot teacher is reciting greetings like “Good morning, ma’am” and “Goodbye, ma’am”. Bright yellow bubbles with sad faces hover over the head of whoever is repeatedly caught not paying attention to the robot.

She traverses a laneway leading to a train station, to a bank, then to a sports oval. Feeling nauseous due to the illusion of motion, she clicked her way back to the grocery store.

“Let me show you something”. He adjusted a switch on the device.

In an instant the cash register and the shelves of milk boxes disappeared. The entirety of the space— the walls, the floor— was exposed in its flesh-colored bareness. The people in what was supposed to be a grocery store looked like pantomimes performing at a blank stage.

V

They found makahiya plants thriving in a vacant lot behind the house. According to the legend she had read to Raphael, makahiya used to be an abnormally shy girl. You could turn into makahiya because you don’t want to look people in the eyes, she warned him.

She had a challenge. Was it possible to touch the ultrasensitive plant without stirring them into folding?

Game? Game!

With utmost concentration they poked their chosen leaves. But the botanical reaction was the same: the leaves folded like a book upon contact. They were not discouraged; they looked for more open leaves to play with. They treaded on a wild carpet of pointy grasses, networks of leaves and branches chopping sunlight above their little heads. Like giant invaders they slew every little life on the ground; and when they finished, a legion of defeated soldiers was scattered before them.

When the last makahiya leaf was poked, Raphael started to uproot grasses with his bare hands. The musk of the earth became penetrating to the nose as rock minerals and decaying bits of nature were brought out into the sunlight. She gasped at the sight of tiny shells clinging on hair-like roots. They were both happy.

Until red spots appeared across his nose, then on his arms.

When they returned home, Raphael was crying of itchiness. Mosquito bites, she explained to Sir and Madam. From Sir he received a blank stare, from Madam a frown. Sir removed his dark coat and retreated to the bedroom. Madam slumped on the sofa. “Ineng, get an ointment and a nail cutter,” she ordered.

What followed were scenes that broke her small heart. A mother clipping her son’s dirty nails. A mother applying eucalyptus cream on her son’s inflamed skin. A mother promising treats—ice cream, spaghetti, Disney Land. Bitterness exploded in her tongue. She bit her lower lip as she watched the maternal spectacle from a corner, unseen and uninvited like a ghost.

That night, inside his room, he slept on the mattress, she on the floor. Once she heard his breathing became regular and serene, she tiptoed across the room and knelt before his bed. The sheer expression of contentment on his face offended her. She wished he would never wake up. She wished him dead.

The next day she ignored Raphael’s demands for a new set of papers. No drawing for today, she scowled at him. She let him tear the curtains from the windows. She looked away when he emptied a bottle of hand lotion on the floor. She just walked over a nest of jumbled spools from cassette tapes. When Sir and Madam entered the house, she sought their faces and savored their helplessness before their son’s wreckage.

The next morning, she joined Sir and Madam on the table for breakfast. Raphael was still glued to his bed. After pouring hot water into their mugs, she sat down to her own seat and stirred a bowl of hot porridge. She looked sideways at Sir’s dark blue necktie, then at the large emerald button of Madam’s dress. She couldn’t look up beyond their chins. She avoided their eyes. She feared they might see right through her.

Only the smacking of lips and the rustling of table cloth could be heard. Finally, the two patted their lips with a napkin and stood up from the table.

“Ineng, don’t let him destroy things,” they reminded her before closing the front door behind them.

She remained on her seat, ears attuned to the signals of their departure—clacking of heels, jingling of keys, car door slamming shut, roar of engine fading away. When she was sure they were gone, she ran to the gate, stuck her head out, looked from left to right, then took tentative steps outside. Now she was strolling down the empty street, her arms matching the cheery cadence of her legs. From the gaps of thickly-curtained windows of the neighboring houses, there were few indications of private affairs, like flecks of lights emitted by televisions. Outside the square boulders of boredom, here she was, having the whole world to herself.

Just across the road, at the end of the street, there was a park enclosed by metal railings tall enough to prevent any stray animals from entering the area. She had never been there before; she didn’t even know it was there. The entrance, a towering arc garlanded with vines, so enchanted her that her legs started to move on their own accord. Aside from her, there were only two people in the park that time: a man walking a dog, and a woman wheeling an infant in a stroller in and out of shadows cast by tall shrubs.

There was a merry-go-round at the center of the park. She grabbed one of its iron handles, ran a little, then jumped into the circular platform as soon as the whole thing started to spin. Not satisfied with the speed, she lowered her right heel to the ground and propelled herself forward. The impact of the wind against her body—or the impact of her body against the wind—gave her an ecstatic feeling. She whirled and whirled and whirled like a top. The environment was reduced to a sweet delirium of lights and sounds. If only one could stay whirling forever…

A scream brought her back to reality. She lowered a foot to the ground, this time to stop the merry-go-round from spinning.

The man was now walking briskly and almost dragging the poor dog behind him. The woman was now standing motionless; one hand resting on the handle of the stroller, the other covering her mouth. They were both looking at something overhead.

Then she saw Raphael from where she was standing. He was up there, arms and ankles wrapped around an electrical post. A man in blue overalls was steadying a ladder on the column. Don’t move, he yelled at the boy. Don’t move.

VI

She was determined to hide the mysterious case before her daughters arrive from school. By the time the honk of the motorcycle service echoed in the house, she had already accomplished her mission. The two girls entered the front door clawing at each other playfully like a pair of lion cubs, their ballooning dark-blue skirts flitting around their smallness.

“I will cook you your favorite corned beef,” she said.

When she went out of the kitchen after preparing their meal she stepped on a tattered bubble wrapping of the floor. She followed the trail of discovery and ended up inside the bedroom, where, huddled on the bed, the girls are peeling off a strip of scotch tape off a black document case.

“Can we open this?”

“Give it to me. Let me see it first.”

What could have possibly betrayed her to these nosy creatures? A trembling in her voice? A wrinkle of deceit around her mouth? An unnatural and suspicious enthusiasm when she said “I will cook you your favorite corned beef”? Goodness. She couldn’t be left alone in this house.

When she unclasped the case a faint whiff of acid met her nostrils. The case contained about a hundred letter size papers bound together by a steel clip. The first twenty or so pages have tentative strokes of graphite and hazy outlines of unknown objects. The sketches in the middle of the bundle have heavier and pointier pencil rendering; something a toddler might have produced during a temper tantrum. Only the last pages showed works of mastery and discipline— patterns of circles in different sizes and colors, as meticulous and refined as needlepoint embroidery.

“These drawings are bad. Except for the ones at the back.” The little critics decided unanimously. She forced a smiled.

All the drawings were undated; but the order of the creation could be deduced from the yellowing of the papers; therefore the bleached white top sheet was the last output of the artist before he died.

One of the girls pulled out the final page and held it at eye level.

“Mama, it’s a girl.”

“What?”

Her daughters knew the trick: if the eyes look long enough to perceive wholeness from units, the magic will take its course. She tried it for herself. The background and foreground shifted like a puzzle and out emerged a single image from the complex pattern of circles. First, a pair of eyes. Then a mouth. Then a face.

It was a portrait of a girl with a ribbon above her right ear.

She started to leaf through the pages with such a speed that the drawings become animated. The sequence tells a story of spherical bodies suddenly breaking into a seizure of zigzags before dissolving into nothingness. She finally understood. Raphael was telling her what had happened to him inside that place. He killed himself.

She pictured him, now a grown-up man, lying on a silky drapery, framed by glass from head to toe, eyes shut, lips shut, fists shut. Raphael, a genuine artist, contained inside a four-sided space. Finally boxed like everybody else in this world. At last.

She got up from the bed and smoothed out the crumpled spot the girls had vacated; it felt hot in her hand. She must hurry. She imagined his husband: a commanding figure by the door, hands on hips, stomach out, necktie loosened, hair matted with wax and sweat. Cold water, he would demand.

But first she had to accomplish something. She hid the case inside an old cabinet. She wedged it in between boxes of discarded shoes.

VII

She must have looked really morose to be leaving so early in the morning. A nun from the hospicio fished a ribbon-shaped hair clip from her purse and gave it to the sullen girl. After saying a few words, the nun bowed before Sir and Madam, her religious garb rustling as she moved. Then she led the way outside the gate where a cab commissioned to transport them to the bus terminal was waiting.

There was no peace in the house. Raphael was wailing and crawling on all fours throughout the morning. He started to bang his head on the gate. He was restrained; there were arms enfolding him, forming a letter X over his chest.

As she walked away she was caressing the hair clip and feeling the grainy texture of the glitters. She examined at her reflection on the shiny exterior of the vehicle, turned her face slightly to the left, and set the adornment above her right ear. She felt pretty. Soon she would find a new home and it would be the happiest day of her life.

Settled inside the car, she caught a glimpse of Raphael from the small mirror above the driver—he was outside the gate, squatting on the ground, looking at her direction, tears and mucus and blood all over his face. The new maid was prodding him from behind, wave goodbye to her, she seemed to be saying to him. Wave goodbye to her.


Greth Barredo works in a media intelligence and data technology company in Pasig City. When not glued to a computer screen, she spends time feeding cats (those ungrateful creatures) and biking around the neighborhood. She lives in Marilao, Bulacan.  You can reach her at gretbarredo@gmail.com