Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Convict's Twilight by Arturo B. Rotor

In the convict camps of Davao, the day is short. Twilight comes early, much earlier than it does elsewhere in the world. It seemed to me that way the first day I was there. I do not think that the feeling is due alone to the sense of solitude brought about by one’s being in the midst of thousands of hectares of virgin forest. For I have lived in other forests before. And these are not the tallest trees I have seen, nor the oldest, and I have already experience that terror overcomes one when he losses a trail. No, the end of the day here and the beginning of the night are brought about by more subtle forces than the movement of heavenly bodies, influences more mysterious than light or darkness, heat or cold, the shifting of vagrant winds. Perhaps it is not really the end of the day that comes so soon, but merely the feeling that it is ended. What matter is not the daily passage of the sun through an arc that ends somewhere in neither the west, nor the lengthening shadows, nor the reddish afterglow that tints the top of the tallest Lauan. It is more than that. It is a premonition more than an actual experience, a foretaste rather than a sensation, a thought, instinct with the sad beauty of every twilight that has passed before, that the hour signifies the end of the day’s work, the cessation of all the hurrying and stumbling during the day. A chance to sit down or lie among the cool hedges that grow near the spring, to bow your head or rest your bowed head on sleep and forgetting, and the expectations of the sensation is peaceful and resigned where the actual sensation itself is often restless and troubled.

This twilight comes when I see the convict emerge from the forest into the clearing. They look weary as they trudge single file to their barracks, backs bent not so much by the weight of the heavy spades, picks, baskets, that they carry as by the unseen burned that they have piled on their shoulders. They have just finished the day’s work of opening new farms or keeping those already open from being swallowed again by the wilderness. Some of the men are caked with mad up to their waists; they have spent the morning clearing the streams of fallen logs and boulders, deepening them so that the water will not stagnate and breed malaria-bearing mosquito. Others are covered with soot, their faces and arm cress-crossed with black lines in crazy patterns, as if they had been playing with charcoal and painted each other’s faces. But they looked tired and dirty, even their eyebrows are matted with black dust, their uniforms are in tatters; they have not been playing. They are the men who first entered a kaingin after it had burned out. The soot on their faces they got when they brushed against the charred and matted branches, as they worked in a cloud of ashes rooting out the smoldering stumps. For me, night begins when I see these men returning home, though it may be long before darkness comes and the air turns cold.
The forest, always silent, now assumes that calm is more breathless and awesome than silence. The breeze dies down, the leaves cease to rustle, the animals of the wood slink away to their lairs. One sees only an occasional crow. Its obstreperous caw-caw-caw echoing and re-echoing for miles around. No angelus rings here, for the nearest church is a day’s journey away, down the river and along the coast. But one does not need to hear the tolling of distant bells to be reminded of the hour for prayer. One must pray here, if only to relieve the terrifying solitude, to stay the gathering darkness. Here one must kneel down, make the sign of the cross, join the twilight host that like a solemn invocation rises above the heads of the tallest to heaven.
The darkness comes like a sluggish, ever deepening stream Imperceptibly it crawls, inch by inch, and as it crawls, it swallows everything that stands in its way, first the towering trees, from their buttressed roots to the highest quivering leaf, then the shrubs and the undergrowth. One knows that it has reached a certain point by sound and movement cease, the creaking of the stiff branches, the scampering of the small animals under the trees, even the wind as it hurries through the lattice of leaves and vines seems arrested in its flight. Over the deep holes left by decaying logs, the deep puddle made by the wild boar, this stream swirls, eddies, and forms little unplumbed pools. Arriving at the edge of the woods and at the beginning of the cleared area of corn and bananas, its progress is faster, because here there are no trees and vines to obstruct its way. Here it broadens cut without shallow, and finally inundates the whole valley.
Once, while gravely ill, I lost consciousness and, since then, light leaving the world has always reminded me of consciousness leaving a sick body. I do not recall any struggling to retain it, the outward flow was so smooth, so placid, so gradual. I desired to prolong it, not because I wanted to retain a clear perception of objective, but because, losing it, I knew that I would also loss an ineffable peace. I wanted to keep indefinitely that twilight interval between awareness and insensibility. Twilight here in the convict’s camps is like that. It is different from any other twilight. For the sake of the convict, it comes early so that he may work early. It stays so that after his toiling he does not have to go to sleep right away; it delays the coming of night and the command to sleep. For it is the only hour that the convict has for playing. All morning he works in the fields and the shops, and at night he sleeps like a log with a hundred out hers in long barn-like quarters; but between these two states, between a fretful existence and a brief lethargy. He has this hour of crepuscule. It is the only hour he can really forget he is a convict. It is an hour of forgetfulness of the sin and its atonement; an hour to play at being free. During this short time he is like you and me; afterwards he is again the unfortunate, taciturn. Self-conscious and servile, the man who marches with heavy feet and a heavier heart.
As soon as the men are gathered, the roll is called, and the presence of everyone is checked. After they have dispersed to return the tools and implements to the tool house, they receive the evening ration. Then comes the hour for play. Their pleasures are simple, their games few. The indoor baseball team goes out to the field and spirited battle is played between two camps. Or it may be volleyball or foot race. Group became bigger or break up, the men wander from barrack to barrack, loiter by the water pump, join other groups nears the general store and exchange bits of news and opinions. Soon everybody is playing or watching others plays and enjoying the games as much as if were active participants, from the embezzler, who teaches his dog to retrieve a stick, to the murderer with his guitar who hurries to join the colony’s string band composed of men like him who are serving sentence of from twenty years of life imprisonment.
The air resounds with their cheers and laughter. These people could not have been happier if they were little children playing patintero in some remote barrio. Thieves, rustlers, smugglers, hardened recidivists, as well as bewildered, boyish killers, all take part in one big game. The game of forgetting, a game with no rules to be followed. Strenuous and difficult as any exhilarating and rough a game which only these men understand fully, a game in which all with except those who are too weak to play it or those who do not see it as a game, or those who have been tired of playing it, twilight after twilight, year in and year out.
Once the colony had a radio and is provided the most exciting game of all. In the midst of their chess or do mine, when a certain hour, some of the men would drop everything they held and rush to the place where the radio was; a room above the general store. And there first was too small to contain all of them, only those who get there first went up, the rest sat down on the benches and stools around the store. When I was new there, I did not understand what drew them like that. At first I thought it was the dance music they liked so much. Later on I learned that this was not the case. For one day when I joined the group below at that hour, the radio was playing a well-known dance piece, but nobody seemed to be listening, and they were making enough noise to drown the music
but when it stopped and a voice announced, “the English Information Period” all noise cease and the place became as silent as a church. Benches were move over so carefully, shuffling legs became still. The men talked to each other and only in whispers, and then only ask about some word they did not catch. I doubt if they understood what they heard, for the voice spoke of a battle in Africa, the political situation in Europe, a strike in America, the problems of the Commonwealth. I do not think knew English. But apparently that were hearing a strange voice telling them of strange happenings in far countries. Very easily one could make believe that he was seeing these events himself, taking an active part in them. That was the most exhilarating game of all, more satisfying than baseball or ping-pong, more than baseball or ping-pong it brought sweat readily and that delicious sense of tiredness which comes from hard putting all your heart into the game.
And then twilight ends, and the voice from, and all the games. Tomorrow is another day and another night and between the two another hour for play. But the men do not look forward to it. Only the new arrivals do that, with their calendars where each day that passes is carefully crossed out in colored pencil. Those who have been here five or ten years often smile at these fellows, knowing full well that after a few months they will not keep track of the days anymore, nor of the hours, nor whether it is morning or night or twilight.
I was surprised to see Cornelio at the hospital that morning. “Why, I thought you were in Iwahig” “I was transferred here sir,” he answered, “I arrived about a week ago.”
The man looked healthier and less reticent than when I had seen him last. I guessed at the reason. “Parole”
“Not yet, sir, but soon maybe.”
“And your wife?”
“She came with me, with my son. I have a son now sir, who was born in the Colony. They went to Tayabas to see my mother soon after we came here but I am expecting them this afternoon. I have been expecting them for the last three days. I shall tell her you are here sir.”
It was like seeing an old friend to see Cornelio here. The joy on his face when he saw me was unmistakable. He had never forgotten the time he pulled through a bad attack of black water fever and he thought that just because I had prescribed a few injections he owed his life to me. His wife thought so too. He wrote to her as soon as he was able to and when I got back to Manila she was waiting for me. She wept soon as she began to thank me, but I do not think it was so much for you that her husband was saved from death as for her helplessness to reward me, her realization that any reward would always be inadequate. Cynically I thought at the time, must we got to convicts to find honest acknowledgement of a debt. The men who are free, have they no such simple qualities as sincerity and gratefulness?
I know Cornelio well. I recall clearly the first time I saw him. It was here in Bilibid, in a cell, where he had been placed in solitary confinement. His quietness that was not resignation. There was no trace of sullenness in him, nor of that grim hiding of time that convicts who have been severely disciplined often show for weeks after their sentence. I had attempted to find out why he was there, what offense he had committed and although he answered me politely enough, soon I began to feel that I was despicable interloper praying officiously into his private affairs. It was something in his impeccably courteous manner. That in itself was surprising enough for here in Bilibid, every inmate seems only to glad to get anybody to listen to his life history. You ask a patient for his symptoms and he sill start with his childhood, his family troubles, his accomplishments, the story of the crime for which he was unjustly condemned. Later on if you are still listening, he will tell you where he buried the money before he was captured. Not so with Cornelio. He answers my questions and nothing more, and when I realized my mistake, I almost felt like apologizing to him.
A few years afterwards I found him in the convict camps of Davao when that Colony was just being carved out of a dark and matted wilderness. I saw him strip red to the waist, swinging an axe as expertly as if he had been used to the work all his life. I watched him as he scampered away with the others when the signal came that the great trees were toppling over. Except that he was tanned by the sun and scarred all over with scratches from rattan vines, he was unchanged. He was still the reserved, soft-spoken somewhat self assured prisoner. It seemed that he had quietly worked out his problem, found its solution and settling his eyes on the road ahead, had resolved that for no reason at all would be linger by the wayside. Somehow he did not seem to be a convict, he did not belong to the place, he was merely visiting these men and would leave shortly. If there was ever anybody who deserved to regain his freedom, it was Cornelio. He had expiated his crime fully, further incarceration served no useful purpose.
Seeing him that day brought Davao and Iwahig back to me. I talked with dozens of convicts and saw hundreds of them, morning and afternoon. Again the question came to me about which I had thought of hundred times before. Which made imprisonment more complete and absolute, the massive walls and iron gates of Bilibid, or the unfenced forest of Davao? Here in Manila freedom and liberty were just on the other side of the wall. In Davao, the nearest settled town was a day’s journey away. If I were a convict would I prefer to be in Manila where I could bear the rumble of a great city, where I could catch occasional glimpses of tall buildings, of the multitude hurrying by? Being so near life, feeling its strong pulsating rhythm, would my own pulse quicken? Would the day of my isolation pass sooner if an every hour of the day was made aware of the sounds that augment the sense of my isolation?
Probable not, probably I would prefer to be in Davao. There, tramping the field, following a river down stream and exploring its muddy banks for catfish, sitting down that flat stone near the spring one could better hold to the delusion that one is free. All you have to do to be free, to throw away chains and shackles, to discard a numbered uniform, so to discredit your sense. You will find many who are only too willing to help you in the face of contrary facts; your companions, the officials, will do all they can to make you feel that you are not really a convict. They will talk kindly to you and give wise and advice, food and clothes, take care of you when you are sick, and there in Davao, the place provides a fitting setting. There are no walls here except the impenetrable wall of forest, the only sentries you see are hoary trees, row upon row, unbending, unrelaxing in their vigilance, keeping a century old watch day and night. Here in Manila so near freedom and yet never any nearer, one can easily forget to laugh.
Going back to the hospital that afternoon, I noticed that the observation tower and platform was full of visitors. I thought there might be something new going on and so I ascended the ladder. This tower, reached by three flights, is built in the center of the compound. Up there an armed guard is posted day and night; he commands clear view of every corner of the yard. Around this tower a sort of sort a platform is built, which would server as a grandstand where visitors are sometimes allowed during parades, reviews or games.
Here, one gets a general view of the construction of the whole reservation. The general building are grouped along a large circle whose center is this tower. The outermost circumference is the wall, so high and forbidding from below, here looking like only a few a low fence. Inside this are the long stone-walled barrack all convening toward the center. Outside wall is another world, the aspect and extent of which those inside see only dimly, in memory or more vividly in imagination. Sometimes they hear various sounds that rise above the wall and are carried inside, but they do not seem to have any meaning. In some corners of the yard, one may hear more and see more an airplane passing by, an electric sign apparently suspended in mid-air, the spire of the nearest church pointed, towards the sky like a finger of exhortation.
I found the usual motley collection of Sunday visitors, mostly relatives of the prisoners came from neighboring towns for the monthly visit, a group of tourist in white duck or shorts, sun helmets askew, cameras slung over their shoulder. There was really nothing new. I had seen this routine review and callisthenic exercise innumerable times. First the prison bond came out, with a great blare of trumpets and roughly roll of drums. The prisoners then followed coming out of their where saluted, and on to their appointed places. There were a few exercises with dummy guns, and calisthenics and gymnastics, briskly and mechanically done. It was the weekly picture of order and obedience and discipline.
The drill was almost half through when, chancing to turn my head slightly, I espied a figure to my left and somewhat behind me. It was a woman, her back turned toward me, and towards the whole crowd. She alone faced that was, for the rest of us were looking the opposite direction where the exercises were going on. Half squat tin, half-kneeling, she held a baby clasped in her arms. She seemed strangely familiar. I looked more closely and recognized Cornelio’s wife.
She was dress in blacked, in the cheap fashion of the poor, a thin old shawl around her shoulders, the hem of her skirt frayed and grey with dust. I stepped forward to a have word with her, but stopped short when I saw how intent she was on something. I followed her graze, followed it to the prisoner’s barracks, saw it fixed on the one directly in front of us. I was somewhat perplexed for I knew the buildings were empty except for the trustees who stood, one to each building, just at the entrance. And then I saw that the men in front of that building, standing against the iron-barred door, was looking up at her. I could not at first make out his features, because the light was failing already, but before I finally did so, I knew it was, that it must be, Cornelio,; it could not have been any other person.
She must have been there from the beginning, the must have been looking at each other like that for that for the last hour. Although she was almost at the edge of the platform, about a hundred yards still lay between them; they were too far away to talk to each other, to even see each other’s eyes clearly. But by the way he looked down. I knew they had been speaking to each other all this time. She must have just arrived from Tayabas, too late to catch the visitor’s hour and meet her husband, but not too late to got a glimpse of him from here. From her cramped position she hardly moved, except when the baby became restless and then she patted his head and murmured something. Once in a while she held him up in her arm, for the father to see him or perhaps in an excess of na├»ve expectation that at this age and from this distance the baby would recognize his father. And in his place the man did not move, not even shift his weight from leg to leg.
Every now and then one of the spectators regarded her dubiously thinking it queer that this woman would be alone like that in one corner of the platform, not paying any attention to what was going on. But he did not see what she saw, Cornelio was too far away. And nobody came near and spoke to her. Perhaps if anyone had she would not have seen him, nor hear his voice.
Gradually I found myself looking at the two of them and like them forgetting all the others first at the man, then at the woman, wondering if after all they were not really talking audible to one another in a language not only beyond my sense of hearing, but also utterly beyond my pitiful comprehension. I strove hard to see her lips move, I desired intensely to see her even wave her hand at the figure opposite. If she had so much as whispered his name, I am sure I would have heard it above the din of that band, above the sound of marching feet.
But I could not make out anything and after a while the roll of the drums and the sound of men’s feet keeping time mechanically became less and less distinct. The silence recalled the forest, a great forest at twilight, the afterglow tinting the tallest trees a dull red, the animals slinking to their lairs, the wind being arrested in its flight as it passed through the lactase of leaves. The night falling was consciousness leaving a sick body, restlessness and strife and pain being replaced by a profound peace. I seemed to hear the sound of a distant bell tolling and that silhouette of the woman kneeling naturally brought the thought of angelus; the woman was praying, the silence itself was a prayer, the darkening world’s daily invocation at twilight.
It was somebody touching my shoulder and starting me unduly that made me look around. I saw a guard by my side and seeing him, I also saw that there were no more people here, that the review had ended and the visitors gone home. I nodded and the guard left me and approached the woman. She rose. Took the shawl from her shoulder and wrapped it around the baby, holding him close, laying him check against hers. As she stepped down the ladder she looked back once, but she did not wave her hand. Following a few paces behind her and picking my steps carefully because it was almost dark, I stopped for a moment and looked back also. But I saw nothing. Night had fallen.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Love After Heaven by Isagani R. Cruz

Love After Heaven, Parts 1 to 5

I shall but love thee better after death, one book says, but I don’t believe that. I’m dead and I don’t see Julie anywhere around. Of course, another book says that, after death, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Angels, my foot! I don’t have wings. I’m not playing a harp. In fact, I’m exactly as I was the day I died, except I’m not tied to that hospital bed with all those tubes going in and out of my body.
Heaven is grossly overrated. I thought that, when I died, I would experience unimagined happiness, like orgasms that last for decades or food that I can eat without having to go to the bathroom or music that I can listen to without getting tired. Or at least, something really enjoyable. I spent most of my life praying that I would go to heaven, even being sorry for anything that would endanger my life after death. I could have done all those things I was not supposed to do, but I didn’t, because I thought that life was hell, or at least purgatory, and if I had suffered enough on earth, I would not suffer in heaven.
What crap! Heaven is just like earth, only a bit cleaner.
I remember the day I died. They were all around the bed – Julie, my cousin Gerry, my sister Yoly, and four, maybe six doctors all shouting orders to three or four nurses scampering like terrorized schoolchildren in the background.
Code, someone kept shouting.
I looked at them from the ceiling, or actually through the ceiling because I could see in front of me the fluorescent lamp and the fire sprinkler. My body – it looked like my body, even with the grotesque tubes injecting all sorts of colored liquid into it – was jerking with every touch of the defibrillator.
I could see not just the bed where my body was lying, but right beside it, or maybe superimposed on it – I can’t be sure now – my condo apartment in upscale Global City. There were two or three cops there – it’s funny how I can’t seem to count properly here in heaven. They were talking to my two domestic helpers, the cook and the laundry woman. I half-expected Julie to be there, shouting at them to keep their hands off the antique blue porcelain plates, but of course, she was in the hospital room, like the dutiful wife that she wasn’t.
I could also see a room in a seedy motel in downtown Manila. He was there, the asshole, the guy that turned Julie against me. He was with a woman, or maybe a man, or somebody anyway. They were in the shower. He was sitting in some kind of contraption that looked like a trapeze swing. He or she or whatever that shadow was was hovering over him.
Then I found myself, without even a dissolve or a fade-away, here in heaven, sitting in this queue that must have stretched for miles.
Oh, yes, sometime – and here in heaven, time has no meaning, so I can’t really tell if this was long ago or just a minute ago – I went through a tunnel. There was a light at the end, the light that some guy in white was waving at my face to guide me through the darkness. I say it was a guy, but it could have been a woman, or even an animal, or something. Maybe an angel? But whoever or whatever he or she or it was, he or she or it had no wings.
But I knew I was in heaven because, well, it felt good to be here. Peaceful. Calm. With no more pain. Not as good as I thought it would be, but good enough. Better than having all those doctors forcing my body to bounce on the bed. Better than seeing Julie pretending to still be in love with me even when she was already sleeping with that asshole.
Boy, that sucks! That really sucks! Some guy with a long beard comes to me and apologizes that they made a mistake somewhere in the bureaucracy here in heaven. I’m not supposed to be here yet. I’m supposed to suffer some more down there on earth.
Okay, so I got carried away saying that heaven was overrated. Okay, so I used the wordasshole here. But surely those are forgivable misdemeanors. Surely all my efforts at being good on earth were worth something. I thought that the bureaucrats here kept a ledger of my good deeds. Of how patient I was when I found out about Julie and that asshole. Excuse me, that person. Okay, that human being. Surely that counts for something.
I can’t go back to earth. I was the laughing stock of the entire corporation there. Everybody knew about Julie. Except me. Her husband. Her husband of twenty years. Twenty years of being faithful to her. Not even glancing at any other woman. Not even entertaining any thoughts of sleeping with anybody else.
I was a fool, for heaven’s sake.
When I did find out, I did not even confront Julie. I just went to our parish priest and asked him what to do. He said that I had to forgive her. She was a human being, fallen because of original sin. The devil made her do it. He asked if I still loved her, and I had to say yes. I couldn’t lie to him. He was a priest, after all.
I did love her. I still do love her. But I am not sure if that means anything to her. One thing I know, I don’t really want to see her again. When we got married in that grand wedding in that old cathedral, she promised to love me till death do us part. Well, death is a good way to part now. Though she did say, during our first anniversary, that she would love me better after death. She made me memorize that poem, for heaven’s sake. How do I love thee and all that shit.
No, please, do not let me go back. Please, no, let me stay here in heaven. I promise never to badmouth heaven again. Seriously.
Well, it looks like this guy listened to me. He now tells me not to worry. He will send me back, but not to the same body. He will send me back in a different body, as an adult. I do not have to be born again as a baby and wait so long to be as old as I am now. I will be resurrected – I think he used the word reincarnated – as a male, single, mature adult.
Maybe things won’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I will meet Julie again and she won’t meet that asshole again and maybe we can live happily ever after after all. Perhaps even meet here in heaven again. Perhaps.
What? Now, that really sucks! This guy with the beard says I won’t remember my past life at all, except in moments of great stress. How can I find Julie again if I won’t remember that we were once happily married, that I loved her even when she was unfaithful to me, that I want to be with her again? Holy shit!
* * *
Julie cried, as she had to. It was what she was expected to do. She had practised it at home, in front of the mirror. How to cry without ruining her mascara. How to cry like she meant it.
This man had made her life miserable by doing what she never expected him to do. He had ignored her affair.
He had kissed her like he always did when he would come home from work and she was in the kitchen, preparing their dinner. Except that she had not prepared dinner. She had dinner instead with Frankie. And not just dinner. Dessert. Dessert like she never had dessert before with this husband of hers.
But this man kissed her anyway. Did not even ask, never even asked, where she had been. She was sure that he could smell Frankie on her skin. He was not dumb. He was, in fact, very smart, the smartest in his group of business executives. He had not become a millionaire by being dumb.
She knew that he knew, but he never said anything. Just kissed her on the cheek as he did every evening of their married life. Their unexciting, boring, routine married life.
The only excitement – if she could call it that – was the anxiety of not knowing when he would finally let go and slap her, kick her, maybe stab her with that paper cutter he kept on his desk. But he never let his anger show. The guilt she felt was worse than even the ugliest scene she could imagine between him and her.
She could never forgive him for forgiving her her trespasses.


The Jeepney Murders by Isagani R. Cruz

The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 1

I smell of oatmeal, she said to herself, as she vainly tried to hail one cab after another on the crowded Makati street. She hadn’t had time to moderate the amount of oatmeal-based skin lotion that her dermatologist had prescribed for her pruritus – a fancy word, as far as she was concerned, for the itch that violated her entire skin every single blessed day of her harassed life. What really got to her was not the itch on her external skin, the largest organ of her body, but the itch down there, on the most sensitive organ of her body.
She wouldn’t have been on the street this early, or this late, had it not been for her driver who had texted that he had a bum stomach and could not come in today. She would have been, as she had every single weekday for the last ten years, sitting comfortably on the back seat of her old Mercedes Benz, putting on her make-up, sifting through the papers that she had brought home from school, getting a few more minutes of much-needed sleep. Her work as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Saint John Paul University was not really that much, but with six hundred teachers and five thousand students knocking on her office door at least once every semester, she had no choice but to work in the car. The two-hour ride to the university – which should have been only a half-hour, were it not for the traffic that defined and defiled the streets of Metro Manila – was a chance to rest or to work or to daydream.
Daydreaming had become her most precious escape from having to read through undergraduate theses that she had to sign as Dean. There was really no need for her to torture herself with the two-hundred-page manuscripts – most of which had been cut and pasted from various Web sources anyway – that students had routinely submitted as partial fulfilment of the requirements of their degree programs, as the formula went, but she had unthinkingly issued a memo last year to all teachers that she wanted personally to see if her university had become a diploma mill. It was her fault that she wanted to micromanage, or as she once overheard her secretary say, she was nothing if not obsessive-compulsive.
She had to get to the university board room in less than an hour. The Executive Vice President of the holding company of the richest tycoon in the Philippines was going to meet her, together with her own Executive Vice President. The tycoon wanted to get an honorary doctorate from the university, in exchange for a library building that he would build named after himself. She wanted to be there to object to such an obviously mercenary arrangement. She would have every right to object, because the degree would be Doctor of Arts and Sciences, and that was the very name of the college she managed. There was no such degree to begin with, but then, there was no library building either. My loyalty to my university ends when my loyalty to academic excellence starts, she repeated as a mantra to herself.
At the moment, however, she had to think not of academic excellence but of getting to the university at all. I have no choice but to ride a jeepney, she told herself, and jumped up the first jeepney that looked like it could squeeze in an extra forty-year-old female. She shouldn’t have worn her favorite skirt, but it was the first thing she could get hold of in her stuffed closet. Had she worn slacks, she would not have felt so exposed with her pale legs, still shapely as her driver kept flattering her when they were in bed, attracting so much attention among the males in the jeepney.
There were eighteen of them passengers in the jeepney, two more than the jeepney could accommodate comfortably. It was rush hour, and it was not unusual for two or three men, sometimes women, to hang on for dear life standing on the step board. The jeepney had two seats, more like benches, that faced each other. Everybody stared past each other, pretending not to notice that they were not only packed like sardines, but smelled like sardines. Well, she didn’t smell of sardines, she thought, but of oatmeal.
The jeepney wound like she expected it to through the streets of Makati. Makati’s streets were, at least, still recognizably streets, where motor vehicles could move faster than joggers. When the jeepney got to the city of Manila, however, the streets ceased to be streets but more like parking lots, with vehicles hardly moving, if at all, and people moving around the vehicles in steady streams. There were more people on foot than in vehicles; these were beggars, vendors, pickpockets, snatchers – the very people she wanted to avoid by moving to upscale Makati.
There were pedestrians who at least looked like they were really going somewhere, but it seemed to her that most of the street dwellers were just moving around the virtual parking lot, selling various things to the passengers of jeepneys, tricycles, buses, delivery trucks, horse-drawn carriages, and cars. One can buy anything on Manila’s streets, one American tourist had once written, leading to massive protests on social media from Makati’s rich residents, who had never been on a jeepney ride through Manila and who were in complete denial of the state of poverty in the metropolitan center. She had followed the barrage of insults on Facebook both against the American and against the Manila mayor, but it was only now that she saw, just a few inches from her face, a real street vendor selling not cigarettes, not bottled water, not newspapers, but condoms.
Then there were the beggars. They came in very imaginative forms. One had an amputated leg and walked around with an umbrella for a crutch. One had an eye that was obviously supposed to be blind, because there was a massive red spot where the eye should have been; she could not tell if the red spot was only red paint, but it sure was gory. Another was really blind, or at least pretended to be really blind, and had a tree branch that served as her walking stick. One had a baby in her arms; the emaciated baby did not look anything like the presumed mother, who was much fairer and had larger eyes. She had heard of beggar syndicates that passed babies from one woman to another, or even deliberately blinded or maimed beggars to make them more pitiable. She knew, however, that it was against the law to give money to beggars, so she did not budge when one of them nudged her.
A passenger got off at every street corner, apparently because no one wanted to walk one meter more than necessary, but someone would immediately come up and fill in the space. To pay the driver, passengers had to pass their money up the benches through the hands of other passengers. Nobody seemed to mind, she thought, as she herself took a fifty-peso bill and passed it on to the passenger nearer the driver. I have to tell my mathematics professors to research on the native way of counting, she reminded herself, for surely jeepney drivers must have a system of remembering who went in and who went down, how much the fare was according to the number of kilometers each passenger stayed on board, not to mention deducting discounts due to students and senior citizens. Since she was neither a student nor a senior citizen, she did not expect any discount. Not knowing how much the fare would be, she decided just to give a large bill and hope that the driver would not give her change in too many small coins.
A street vendor came up and sold the driver a garland of flowers. They weresampaguitas, common white flowers easily made into necklaces by the homeless. She noticed that the driver gave the boy too many coins for such a paltry necklace. The driver hung the necklace on the rear-view mirror. She had heard of the contributions the police extracted from every jeepney driver, and this must be it, she thought.
After what seemed like an hour but was really only five minutes, the jeepney driver suddenly uttered what seemed like the cry of an ape standing over a fallen prey or Tarzan finally beating the poacher in one of the old movies she loved watching on television.
Then the driver spat something yellow on the windshield. It didn’t look like sputum, because it looked rock solid, like a piece of food that one would cough out after having been subjected to a Heimlich choking rescue maneuver.
The driver must have slammed on the brakes, because the jeepney lurched forward and she was pushed against the woman to her right.
“Sorry,” she instinctively said, but no one paid attention to her, not even the woman, because they all saw what was happening to the driver.
The driver had suddenly turned green, literally, then crumpled like a rag doll.


Friday, July 15, 2016


Final Round
The Miracle

by Ben Crisp and Rose Flores 

“Yes,” I said, gesturing pointlessly down the street as I crossed to her.  “I… you left it at the park.”
“Thank you,” she said, reaching out a hand to take it.  She brushed a loose strand of hair back and squinted at me.  “I have no money, sorry.  But thank you.”
“No, you don’t… I didn’t want a reward.  Are you alright?  You look upset.”
She turned away, and I wondered how I could be so direct to this perfect stranger.
“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m inquisitive.”
“OK,Yankee Steve.  I have to go now,” she said, and started to walk.A stupid, mad chuckle escaped my mouth and I caught it quickly in my hand as I chased after her. 
“No, not… it means I’m nosy.  I’m curious, sorry.  Like a cat, you know.”
She stopped and squinted at me again, as though wondering whether to smile at this insane white man or not.  Then she pointed at my nose.  “Curiosity kills the cats.”
“Yes it does,” I said, nodding.  “Do you want a coffee?”
She turned and started walking again.  “If I had money I would give it to you, but thank you for bringing my scarf.”
I chased after her.  “No!  No, it’s nothing to do with… I want nothing from you.  I just thought you looked like you could use a coffee.”
Her squinting tortured me.  I had no clue what was going on behind those stern brown eyes, and not knowing this little thing was vanishing all that I did know; every instinct was fading from me.
“I’m a journalist, I’m not…” I said helplessly, and shrugged. Not what?
She shrugged back.

“Your boyfriend’s house?” I asked as we sat at a table beneath a red canvas umbrella.
“Why do you think that?”
“The locket.”  I pointed at the little golden heart turning restlessly between her thumb and forefinger.  She snapped it into her palm defiantly.
“The scarf is from my boyfriend,” she said, pulling it from her neck and resting it on the table as our coffees arrived.
I tore open a sugar packet and tapped it into my cup.  “I’ll bet you chose it.  It matches your dress.”
She checked her phone and did not answer me.  I was right.
“You drink too much coffee,” she said at last, after she had sighed and tucked her phone away again.  “Caffeine is bad for the heart.”
I shrugged again.  “Everything is bad for the heart these days.”
We sipped from our cups and ventured into the silence that filled the air around us.  Empty, silent air; it choked me more than smoke.  Was that why my fingers reached for last cigarette after last cigarette after last cigarette?
“May I see?” I said, and held out my palm.
She stared at me through steam rising from her coffee, a cradle of warmth between her two soft hands; then lowered the cup, unfolding her fingers to proffer the locket.
It was of the yellow gold I had never admired, adorned with rubies that might have been real, or might have not; and not knowing made them seem worthless.  A tiny clasp unhinged its two halves, splitting the fragile little heart in two, revealing a miniature biscuit-tin print of the veiled Madonna.
“Lucky charm?” I asked.
“She is pure.  Perfect.  Everything else is dirty in the morning.”
“Nothing’s quite as pretty as Mary in the morning,” I sang in my best Elvis voice, but she did not smile. A digital chirrup sounded beneath the table, and she withdrew her phone swiftly, reading the message with that same familiar squint.
“Boyfriend?” I asked.
She reached out and took the locket back, standing as she did so.
“I have to go.  Now.”
Her voice had a tiny tinge of urgency to it.  I stood too.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said as she started to walk away.
I was about to remind her that I hadn’t actually offered to pay for her drink, but changed my mind and dropped a handful of coins on the table instead, following her.
“Your scarf,” I said, offering it to her.  She snatched it from me with a little noise of annoyance – at herself or at me I was not sure.  “It’s Michael, by the way.”
“Violeta,” she said.
She began to murmur underneath her breath as she quickened her pace.  I was almost jogging just to keep up with her, my hands in my pockets as though we were just two friends in a mutual hurry.  She was praying, I realised; every other word of the rosary filtered from her lips through the noise of the traffic – into which she suddenly stepped, waving her hand at a Corolla with barely readable taxicab printing that skidded to a halt beside her.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
She glanced at me like an impatient schoolteacher as she grabbed at the door.
“Hospital,” she said.

“Then Michael hop in!  Or would you leave now?”  So we boarded the Corolla. 
I didn’t know what this guy wanted from me, but I didn’t care less because my thoughts were horrible.  I knew something would happen, and whatever fate again would present to me – as to my friend Hannibal’s wisdom was to be happy and free.  I assured myself that what could happen to my boyfriend was reality, like the shifting of clouds – we just couldn’t stop their movements, only God can.  The next thing I felt our hands were tightly locked, and Michael’s gaze trying to seize my brokenness.
     “Is there something I can do?” he asked.
     “Nothing.  Thank you.”
     Lane upon lane, track upon track; my mind whizzed the clouds, the nothingness, the coldness of my fright, the fallen hopes, the waiting, my single life of faith. At this time, the locket...
    “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.” Michael asserted.
     And then, in my bag the phone buzzed again.  I grasped the phone firmly, but my hands were weak so the phone dropped down the cab floor.  Michael got it and read the message. 
     I did not mind his resolve.  The driver was silent with only the twist of his wheels.  The air was cold and my heart pounded heavily like rocks on my chest breaking for mercy.  “Oh, Maria!”
     Silence in the cab, in the air, near the afternoon...  Michael didn’t say any word, but searched the locket for me and put them in my hands.  He held me close and I did not resist the comfort of his arms around my bereft shoulders that needed warmth and flesh. 
    “We’d go to the back office of the hospital, Violeta.  The staff will give us instructions...”    
I paid the driver as she sprang from the taxi.
            My only thought during the ride was that I could not remember the last time I had hugged someone out of the simple instinct to comfort; when had the act of touch become so foreign?
            Please hurry.
            That’s all the second text had said.So whatever disaster had befallen him had not restricted his use of a phone.  I hated myself for the unkind thought.  Had my ex looked as Violeta looked, whenever I had told her I was ill?
            The nurse at the back office desk glanced at the clipboard hanging by her side.  Emergency. Bay 212.  Violeta hurried ahead and I followed, helplessly, at a distance.  I thrust my hands into my pockets and peered through the gridded windows on the doors as we walked the length of the corridor, my lungs filling with the smell of disinfectant.  The figures in the beds looked so small and vulnerable.  As Violeta stopped ahead of me I realised they were children.  The realisation shook in me, and my fingers closed around something in my pocket.  The familiar scratch of a paper curl on skin. A forgotten cigarette.
            I stood behind her. Through the window in front of us I saw a dimly lit room.  A woman leaned forward in a chair, her back to us.  Her hands were clasped around the hand of a boy who lay motionless in the hospital bed.  From where I stood I could see his eyes were not quite closed, fine red lines crossing his face around them.  Machines surrounded him, their cables disappearing under his sheet, electric green and blue lights winking and flickering softly.
            Across the bed from the woman stood her husband.  I recognised him.  I had seen his face in newspapers; a politician, maybe.  He was short, dressed in a dark business suit.  His hands were deep in his pockets and he stood, slumped, staring at the boy with a strange look on his face.  It was the look of a man for whom the curtain of life had been pulled aside, and he saw nothing behind it.
            His glassy eyes drifted from the boy across the room to the door.  He saw Violeta.  He saw me.  I glanced at Violeta, her eyes now welling.  Across the space, through the glass, the two of them were sharing a look filled with all the sadness, the sweetness, the tenderness and heartache that I had ever known love to be about.  It was then I felt alone, as the lonely will do, rain soaked neighbour to the world of the loved.  A world for those who felt the warmth of others even when parted, and who felt another’s pain.
            I felt pain.  I felt Violeta’s, as she felt her lover’s, as she felt and he felt the pain of his son, and the mother did too, and I; all of us there in the chapel of pain, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital.
            He looked to his wife, and Violeta turned from the window, her hands to her mouth, eyes searching for some solace in mine.  I curled an arm around her shoulder and walked her to the stairwell at the end of the ward.  As we rose, step by step, I heard the rooftop doorway humming a mellow chant between the cold conditioned inside air and the free and humid day outside.
            On the roof we stood and stared, listening together as the yellow scarf fluttered in morning eddies, and I saw… I saw, across the avenue, beyond the cries and howls and mirth of the city streets, through a border of bricks and bolts and steel, perched on a plinth in the centre of a pond, the concrete Madonna.
            Perhaps love was not pure, but stained.  Perhaps love was not harmony, but discord.  Perhaps love came in all the shades of earth and grime, and in the moist and dirty breath of the taglamig air that brushed our faces on mornings such as this.
            Violeta prayed in silence beside me, and I lit my last cigarette.

   My last ever, I promised myself, as I had done the day before.

 posted by rosevoc2

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The Miracle by Ben Crisp and Rosalinda Flores


As the days had been stressful, good times were numbered.  Friends popped and disappeared.  When people smelled you could not give enough, they stayed away.  If they could not get anything from you or suck anything from you, merry days would be over; you would be out of the circle.  See I’m out? They smelled they couldn’t get much from me. 
“Good morning, Miss!”
Where is he?
“Please see him in the living room.”
He was sitting in his wheel chair.  He was reading the newspaper and a glass of water was on the table.  Postcards were scattered, a record book, and medals of his faith.  He was supposed to be a cleric, but due to weak health, he didn’t get it through.  Instead, he ventured on a business that earned him a fortune. 
I always borrowed from this man, and he was the only one who didn’t tax me.  As people could see outside, he lived in luxury – but his heart, it was benevolent to any creature who would seek his help.  The only thing that he asked from me was to help him on his records and choose medals for him, which I really liked.  He collected stones, as well; precious and non precious; even diamonds.
“What’s the problem?”
It is the same as yesterday.
“The love affairs...”
Yes. And he will be back for me soon.
“Could you be happy...”
Yes, you know I love him so much.  I danced in front of him.
“You are must be mad.”
Yes, I am. I thought we could be married.
“Next time he would sell you for a gold coin.”
We sorted out the medals.  Some were very, very old.  Some were new.  Some were uniquely precious and of great value.  In a while, he got something inside his fist and told me.
“Close your eyes.  Give me your hands.”
Nah, you will play up on me.
“I’m serious now.  I have something for you to drive evil spirits away.” He teased me.
You and your fart!  I laughed out loud.  My sad laughter filled the quiet room.
“I said open your hands!”
Okay, Sir, here it is.
I closed my eyes and slowly he dropped the object in my hand.  “Magic, here!”  My palms were excited and cold, just like when one student told me to open my hands across snowy Japan, then surprised me with a Sakura.  She told me, she liked me a lot, offering me the national flower of her country.  And now, was another guessing moment. 
Is it another precious gem?
“Hold it carefully and see for yourself.”
That time was special.  I could see his face full of compassion for someone weary.  I felt it was an act of consolation to blow zeal to my broken spirit.  It was as though a magic clock made me a princess or sent me somewhere in time like, Alice in Wonderland. What I held in my hands was dear to my heart, and the feeling was all of a child so loved dearly:  free and happy.   It was a gold heart locket; an old one, embed with red tiny rubies. Inside was a picture of the Madonna.  He knew I liked the Madonna. My throat tightened and my eyes blurred with clouds of water.  And then, his hands came gentle on my cheeks.  He smiled and hugged me, tight. 
I was certain I would get a chain for this.  My ringing phone intruded. He told me, “Go now.”
“Why do you want me to leave? Am I disturbing your holy hours?”
“No, you need to go and find what will make you happy.  And that boyfriend? Stay away from him.  Do you think he’ll marry you for real?  He has got a wife.”
Before I left his house, he’d always tell me the same reminders.  That was what I evaded.  I couldn’t let any one, not even my family or closest friends mock my boyfriend.  It was time to leave again.
“Thank you for the Madonna.”
I hurriedly kissed him and went out of the house.  I didn’t look into my phone to check, nor answer it.  My boy friend was always exciting, as there might be something confidential – not business, not updates, but the tweets and yearnings of him.
Outside, when the gate was closed, I dialled his number.  I was right he was the one who called.  Was he meeting me?  I waited.  He wasn’t answering the phone.  I tried calling him again, but still, there was no answer. I texted, “Pls answer your phone now.  I miss you so much.”  As I walked the empty street, the air glistened to me.  I was reminded, of my separation with him, my incompleteness, and that I was only, waiting for crumbs. 
As I looked the next post, I saw that same white guy, walking and holding something that was mine.  Was it my scarf?  


Hansel and Gretel9