Monday, March 28, 2011

Anatomy of A Lifetime

At the age of twelve, the boy will learn the name of his first crush in school. As if chanting his own mantra, he will whisper her name the first thing in the morning and the last thing in the evening. He will have sleepless nights and lazy days thinking of her, the young lady with cheeks waiting to be kissed by virgin lips. He will wait for her after class and hope with his young heart that she will find her way to him because maybe, just maybe, the feeling is mutual. Attracting a girl has never been a task so monumental, so he will learn to fix his hair and wear perfume. Never mind if he will smell like his mother; there is a reason why their cabinet drawers are communal spaces in their bungalow, except that he still prefers to sneak his way through. By the time he gets to talk to the girl on a lonely concrete bench facing the setting sun, he will reveal his secret. With only the trees to witness a confession so pure and sincere that heaven might fold, she will like him just the same. They will kiss.

But age, like your worry for unpaid debts, is a mental state that usually troubles the mind. The boy will want to mature without having to pay the costs of growing-up. Soon, every detailed attempt to recall the months that went by will inevitably condition him to remember her face, her eyes most of all, but never her name. Perhaps it is true; you can have as many names for a face but rarely does it happen the other way around.

After turning third year in high school, the boy will be sixteen. He will have as many pimples as the pores on his forehead. It will be a dermal cataclysm that no skin in the human race has ever had before. Realizing that it is his supreme injunction to free himself from that dreaded quagmire, he will try a burdensome regimen—he will have to stop thinking about the girls he fancies. It will be tricky and equally tiresome, knowing that teenage life is fertile ground for potential romance. Every year, millions of adolescent boys fall victim to the wrath of puberty. The lethal combination of raging hormones and proximity to the opposite sex accounts for pricked pimples that suddenly transform into craters of weird shapes and sizes, as if they are the unwanted memorabilia of a recent past.

Prom season will be a story on its own. As far as the male species is concerned, everything is about coat and tie. Boys will have to coat themselves with courage if only to ask girls to dance with them for a minute or two, and they will have to tie themselves to a branch of the nearest tree should they still fail even after wearing their balls high up to their hearts. On prom night, the boy will approach the most popular girl in the batch. He will stand before her and extend his right hand as an invitation, which is no less than a calculated gesture designed to raise a request without having to say a word. Before her, his knees will tremble a bit and his lips will quiver. In return, she and her friends will give him a curious look that is the farthest thing from a yes. His humble proposal will be rejected. He will smile at her, turn around, then walk away while thinking about the dance that never was. He will not hang himself, though.

College will be the phase for many firsts. A girl who is not as virgin as Mary will claim his virginity. The boy will get wasted for the first time after ten bottles of beer and, thereafter, he will run back to his dormitory before sunrise, racing through the streets almost naked had it not been for his white underwear. The morning after, he will have his first brutal hangover. He will also be given his first failing grade and he will celebrate the occasion with his peers by sharing cheap brandy and stories not supposed to be told but are hilarious and embarrassing enough they should be told anyway. One moonlit night, he will discover the piano suites of Claude Debussy and he will listen to the third movement of Suite bergamasque over and over while reading Paul Verlaine's poetry until he falls asleep. There are other firsts: from having a girlfriend to forgetting a breakup, and from ranking first in a final exam to being nailed by the professor during recitation class. Whether he likes it or despises it, the first will not necessarily be the last.

The boy will graduate from college and find a stable job. He will save most of his earnings. In five years, he will have already built a house on his own lot, one that is big enough for a small family. Ten years later or eight years after marrying his coworker, he will have two daughters and two sons. He will get old and retire from work after almost four decades in active government service. Because his own children will marry at a young age, he will have six grandchildren and maybe even two great grandchildren. But he will suffer from an ailment caused partly by senility and partly by the vices of the youthful days long gone. The last of his living days will be spent at his room and he will call out the name of a girl he last remembered when he was twelve but whose face he can no longer recall.

Clair de Lune.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

City Love

This city offers a very lonely sight, like an ocean of warm bodies with not one I can embrace and not a familiar soul to commune with. As I further sink in this state of irreparable destitution, I realize I can easily die just by holding the hands of a beautiful stranger or by putting my arms around her. For one, she might toast my nuts to fine ash with her Taser. For another, I do not have balls the size of Ireland, which is just about enough license to be a braggadocio. Try as I might, my shit is still bananas. Attempts to be happy by intoxicating my self in a drunken haze will only make me realize a more or less cerebral disposition, which is this: I am as thirsty for life and love as before, and beer can only quench it as far down as my throat. And the more sober I become, the more I feel that there is never a substitute for the real deal.

A million or more transients call this city their home, at least for a while, and yet they who share this one big urban roof for a sanctuary remain complete strangers. They are neighbors who are not quite like neighbors but more like peons in a colossal citadel. They are not really sure why that is so, or if they are all better that way. Nobody even bothers to ask why. Perhaps, nobody ever will. Everyone is too busy with everything, even breathing, as if nothing can ever be as alarming as realizing a heartbeat that has always been there. Here is where the ground shifts by the second and a minute lost feels like a lifetime too late to recover. With very few friends to get by with my life in Quezon City, things are bound to get lonelier.

But not if I have a city love.

Sometimes I easily drown in the tides of my imagination. Once upon a time, about three days ago, I took a commute by railway and I thought I have seen my city love. She was sitting by the edge of the cabin with her legs crossed and eyes lost in the pages of a Murakami novel. Her skin radiated life, reminding me of Chrysanthemum on the full bloom of spring, of leaves in golden slumber and of petals that reach for the sky. I desired to slide my fingers through her raven black hair, thinking how endless a glide it might be had I only bothered to invoke a slice of courage. But there being none, I satiated my curiosity simply by glancing in her direction every so often until I had to leave. By the time I got off, she was still reading Norwegian Wood. I went my way thinking of her, the nameless girl, and I swear I felt I missed her all of a sudden. Each step I took was heavy enough to drag my heart down. The train where she was went farther north. I walked south, or perhaps it was south. I do not remember. At that point, the only direction that made sense was north.

The other day I was sitting by the sunken garden. Of all the strangers minding their own personal pilgrimage en route to some place between nowhere and everywhere, I thought I saw her again, only that she seemed quite different. At that moment, either the rest of Diliman was silent or I was completely deaf. Maybe it was both, so I hummed a tune without hearing my voice. And then I thought she approached me and said hello. The first word to break the muteness of that solemn Sunday sunset somehow found its way through her crimson lips. I noticed that she has not really changed after all. It was my memory of her that did.

And then I woke-up. Suddenly, there was sound. I should have kissed her before the dream was over. I tried to close my eyes again but she was gone. Perhaps it is true after all; you cannot find someone with your eyes closed.

I found out yesterday evening that she never really completely vanished. I thought I saw her again in one of the few places near the campus where students drink away their Friday nights as a grand salute to the birth of another weekend. She was as beautiful as before. Her right hand gently held the bottle of beer, slightly tilting her splendid neck upwards so that the liquid will effortlessly pour itself down her esophagus. Upon emptying the bottle, I looked at her and she looked back at me. It was the longest five seconds of my life as far as I can remember. The night went on until it was early morning. Like the occasions that went before, she had to leave even before the rest of our lives can begin. I cannot tell for certain if she was the same girl but I sure felt that the difference, if there was any, was all the same.

In 1995, Edward Adelson created the same color illusion. Two squares in a checkerboard may seem different at first, the one darker and the other lighter in shade. In truth, however, they share the same shade, or hue, or color. The optical difference is misleading; there is none. The closer you look and the harder you stare, the more you think that you are able to set them apart. Or, the more you think about their differences, the more you become convinced that they are completely distinguishable objects. Unfortunately, you can only know as far as you want to believe. I thought I believed they were one and the same girl but that is only as far as I can know. By trying to fit a uniform glove on every hand one at a time—without any intention of sounding perverse but with only every intention to sound metaphorical—perhaps I am becoming an obsolete lover. Or maybe not even a lover; I do not love anyone, at least not yet.

But what the hell, a city love is still a city love. I will find her even if she is not lost.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Gods Among Mortals

While typing this, I am drunk. Just to be clear, it is an excuse. I feel like a newborn each time I get to talk with them, like the weeks that went before. They, Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards winners, make it look and sound so easy. I have had several encounters, some brief more than others, with writers who have had the rare chance to be etched on the planks of Philippine literature, immortalized in no small way by their accolades and by pages read before people who seem mesmerized just by the utterance of the names of these literary heroes. If a scribe's prowess can be measured by trophies and medallions, I have more than a hundred miles to go. My depth is immeasurable simply because there is none to measure.

In their presence, I feel like a passing asteroid, or an obloquy. They are the nebulae that spawn genius that will last, perhaps, infinity or a lifetime. Before them, I am a dot yearning for a sentence to punctuate just to be of any use. I cannot fathom how much air I have to inhale so as to float and be one with these angels in the sky, or gods walking amongst, and drinking with, mortals.

I have read most of their writings. Each time I scour tomes for their short stories and essays and poems, I feel bemused. Their words make the reader think beyond what is necessary. After all, a carefully crafted literary piece can punch holes through any mind pretentious of being one within the same league as Milan Kundera, or Nick Joaquin, or Salvatore Quasimodo. I was taught that one of the greatest errors of any individual is to treat the self as a force larger than all living creatures combined. It is a fatal mistake that carries the penalty of the premature death of a dream.

They choose their metaphors with precision, never bloating a sentence with more figures of speech than what is needed, and yet never appearing too pale or anemic. In an effort to be gauged by some people as minimal but poignant, others decide to nip the flowers in their prose so that their words become sensible, all the while forgetting that literature is never spoon feeding. Some others, still, in an effort to be labeled by readers as deep, choose to build a garden on a pot, never realizing that words can only signify so much in so limited a space. It does not end there. Others, too, feel as though they have been born and raised as literary critics, blessed by some literary deity with the power of criticism that never bends, or is never crippled by a disease called self-restraint. They are willing to butcher a writer even before the first word is written.

I digress. A scrutiny of the paragraphs of the learned writers will yield no less than a blueprint that outlines in full detail what should be expressly stated and what should be left out for the reader's imagination to ponder upon. Ample room is given for the reader to flex her or his thoughts without necessarily obliterating the very raison d'etre of the piece. Their method is perfectly brilliant it scares the living daylights out of me. As it has been said countless times before, theirs is one that bears madness in method and method in madness. It cuts both ways, and that I have continuously failed to do.

I have always desired to be a published writer. It is bad enough to be a writer without having been published ever since. Worse, it seems unforgivable to be a writer with no reader to begin with. Perhaps, there is truth to the idea that, being a writer, you only need to have at least one reader—yourself. But it does not satiate the thirst in any conceivable way. It is as if you feed yourself but you remain hungry. You want to be nurtured by the hands of another, in some cases more literal than any given time. Maybe they are correct. Once you see yourself as a writer, it is inevitable that you will start to let the world know, as if your life depends on an umbilical cord that spreads out to every human being.

I feel too small, too small in fact that I cannot even see my self. The literary titans do not even dare lift their own seats. Perhaps, they let others do it for them, like a ritual tempered with habituation through time. I, a willing servant, have done so many instances before if only to let them be aware that their labor has never gone to naught. Somewhere, an apologetic apprentice is always prepared to stand at the swivel of the master, turning the wheel just to have a sense of direction. To learn is to swallow pride, allowing what little personal worth there is to be ingested by one's own intestines if only to be nourished. It is a humbling experience that carries more lessons than any manual for grammar and composition can offer.

Maybe this is what it feels like to be a mere mortal before the presence of gods, like an apostle—no, not even an apostle but a bystander—before a table surrounded by messiahs.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Letter from the Grave

[Last part of the "Insurrections" series]

Saint Gertrude of Nivelles Cemetery,
Nabua, Camarines Sur
December 9, 1945

Beloved Matilda,

You will never personally hear from Sylvia again. The person is dead, shot on that misty October morning. The lifeless body was left to rot with the maggots in the forest or whatever it is that feeds on flesh before it decays. The eyes were still wide open, as if for the first time it saw the face of the death angel wearing a grimace that implores misery and anguish while extinguishing every faint semblance of hope on the fallen. I am sure the messenger of the underworld saw the face of a traitor in that corpse. The second bullet did it. I had to be certain that the first time the traitor meets death will also be the last. Now, as I have said before, Sylvia is no longer in the forest. She is somewhere else.

Her sky is the ground. From where she is, there is no rain to speak of, not even a cloud or a silver lining. There is no sun either, only a complete darkness that consumes everything and leaves desolation in its wake, one that is not necessarily ugly. She will write you a letter from the grave one of these days explaining why she is dead and prefers it that way.

I remember it without ambiguity. It took thirteen days before she was finally convinced to join the insurrection. Her life in Manila was not easy from the start, but it was the perfect leeway to indoctrinate her without remorse. At first, she hesitated, knowing fully well that the dangers are as real as fresh bruises that tinge the surrounding veins. It was made perfectly clear to her beforehand that the fight will be terrifying, leaving no breathing greenery for the coward shepherd and the insolent lamb. Indeed, it was. Just the thought of close combat with the Japanese, the Americans, the Constabulary—take your pick—using daggers that rape every mortal flesh, or bullets that tear through anything, can create tremors in the senses that can make the heart wobble off the chest. But she eventually carved in.

Looking back, I think she is more of a man than any one of the comrades, even all of them combined. She would fearlessly confront the enemy as if she's flawlessly executing a tactical move, exacting one enemy life after another with her rifle. The rest of my comrades would only trail her steps, making her the indestructible shield that will dodge the bullets for them. In one previous encounter with the Americans, she got shot on her right arm, creating a bloody crease on her skin. The wound bled profusely but she survived. One of the comrades almost died from fainting after seeing the laceration on one of the casualties lying helplessly on the ground. Sometimes I think it is a shame that they carry their balls like a heavy luggage between their thighs and call themselves men. Perhaps, had it not been for the casual erection that they clutch with their hands, they are only good for reproduction and nothing more. And yet, they see themselves as god's gift to women?

Speaking of women, I have gathered that Saint Gertrude of Nivelles is the patroness of travelers and of the dead for one reason or another. In any case, as in my case, I think her patronage only applies half every time. Either I am traveling or I am dead. It is only one or the other and never both or none at all, unless Saint Gertrude is also willing to nurse the souls of the traveling dead. Which reminds me of this: it took me about two months to reach Nabua from Calauag. The travel was excruciating, especially since there was no other way but south, very far from where we began. Along the way, I also traversed some parts of Pili and I found out that you were right. Pili is a patient in irreversible comatose, as if it is dead and alive at the same time.

Dead and alive. It is interesting when we squeeze two opposites into the same sentence, akin to lining the north and south poles on the equator. It makes the thought both heavy and light, round and flat, big and small, without exactly knowing why that is so. Strangely, when you take one out and leave the other behind, the thought is no longer the same. It changes and it changes very sharply, as though a bicycle is on a limbo after losing a wheel, or a chair loses balance after a leg is unhinged. The north is never north without the south. A traitor is already dead and it just does not feel like the first time.

You said the pen and the moleskin were for Sylvia. They are, and have always been, in the proper hands. Antonio was the traitor. I shot him. I have no more room left for apologies and metaphors. I understand you love the man. But he was a traitor, both as a rebel and as a lover.

Home at last but never there,


Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Letter from Nabua

[Part 4 of the "Insurrections" series]

Nabua, Camarines Sur
November 2, 1945

Dearest Antonio,

If mountains can move insurrections, the end of an artificial catastrophe called war can displace innocent civilians. I do not claim to be an innocent civilian but the circumstances do not permit a stationary life for one whose diet includes an unhealthy plate of death threats for breakfast. The last time an investigative article I wrote in my name was published in the The Local Independent more than a year ago, the Americans shut down our office. It's the last shit to hit the fan, they said. I hid under a nom de plume since then. For the coming issue of the Nabua Herald, I decided to use your name in place of the one I have been using. I'll tell you why.

A large portion of Pili suffered from extensive devastation. Even now, both the government and the renegade forces are sifting the town, or what little is left of it, for the vaguest signs of their fiercest critics. A false move can make you a sitting duck within shooting range. It was clear then: relocating to Nabua was out of the question. It was the only answer for the bare inklings of survival. It may be true that the pen is mightier than the sword. Bullets and bombs, however, are an entirely different matter—a sui generis, if you will.

I left Pili about six days ago. Riot and people running amok swept the main arteries of the town like a torrent. It was a sequel that was all too clear to be ignored even before the Japanese forces began to withdraw during the assault. The Americans would only care less, especially since they realized there was nothing else left to gain from a municipality that is as desperate as its people. As for the local leaders, there was none to lead except the regular funeral march every now and then. Pili was as lifeless as a patient in irreversible comatose.

Looking back, the conditions were on the verge of being merciless. Nabua is not all too different, though. Barely a hundred miles further south of Pili, the town almost bears the same imprints of the onslaught. It is almost equally grotesque. The only consolation I have is that Nabua is a less perilous haven, albeit the dangers are still present. It is an imperfect sanctuary, or a refuge with its own desecrated shelters. Here, I feel like a fetus transplanted from another womb, waiting to be delivered into another maternal sack, never to be born so as never to die. It is only quite recently that I found out that things are not as different as they first seem. The difference in Nabua, perhaps, is just the same as in Pili.

Today is the Feast of All Souls. There really is no reason for the people to visit the cemetery. The streets have become the ready graves for the dead. In fact, the town has already run out of candles, making any effort to commemorate the death of the departed an exercise in futility if one is to measure it in terms of how many candles one can light. It is dark in Nabua, the outskirts even more, with neither a candle nor a soul in sight by evening. But come to think of it, there is more reason to appreciate life than otherwise. Death in this part of the country is no longer rare. It is life that is not too common, I must say.

It is true that your little insurrection pales in contrast to the larger armed conflict between the foreign belligerents. I think the least recognition that you and your comrades may have several years from now is to be mentioned in a random footnote in history books read in institutions that teach everything but history. It is a cheap consolation, if at all it will console anything or anyone, including you. Someone in a distant year may find your name in a footnote, read it as if to summon the spirit of a warrior, only to lift another page and close the one that bears the print of your insurrections, and never to remember that little portion of your life until someone else in a more distant year shall chance upon your footnote.

But I guess even that requires extending the possibilities to ridiculous lengths. I cannot blame you if frustration has begun to seep into your mind. I will not be surprised either if you go ballistic on random days. You know quite well, however, that sacrifice is always a prerequisite to any struggle. Which is why I decided to sacrifice, or use, your name for the article I have submitted to the Nabua Herald. The article is about your story. Like I said in my letter from Pili, it is the closest I can get to playing French—like a Chinese mouthpiece for a Bonaparte standing before a cavalry of French revolutionaries—without being one. Your name and your insurrection, I hope, will be remembered long after this country has risen back on its feet.

I find it strange, though, that it took a confession before you could know with certainty that there is a traitor in your midst. I think you already knew, but you were afraid to confront the fact. I sense that you have something else in mind. You wrote your words without really telling me the message you wanted to say, at least not directly.

I haven't heard from Sylvia.

Farther south but never far,


Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Second Letter from the Grave

[Part 3 of the "Insurrections" series]

Saint Jude Cemetery
Calauag, Quezon
October 12, 1945

Beloved Matilda,

Some say insurrections, like faith, can move mountains. Only now do I realize that it is not always true. For the past few weeks, it is the mountains that have moved us, as if we are transients in a wilderness lorded over by an invisible caretaker who only accepts blood as payment for rent. The Constabulary, or whoever it is whose bullets have been trailing us, is on a relentless pursuit. My comrades and I, on the other hand, feel as though we are jungle cats desperately running away from our own tails. With the trees and bushes as cushions for the flesh by day, we can only hope under the same sky to dream the same dream—a safe trek by night through one dense forest to the next. It seems that ours has turned into a voyage with no definite course, to the point that everywhere is always a preferred destination than nowhere. We have become tourists of countless graveyards and our passport is death.

You were right when you said that not every force is always against us; some are with us. Like gravity, a traitor is invisible. He blends seamlessly with the group, but he will be with you if only to be against you. The being with you part is easy enough to see. It is the going against you that is difficult to recognize. Fortunately, a conscience as heavy as the weight of a boulder can tear down the sheaths of any proud heart.

Three days ago, a comrade confessed his sin just before daybreak. As he knelt, I pointed the cold and moist muzzle of my rifle on his right temple. I gave him five minutes to talk so that he himself can listen to what he is saying. My ears were open but I could not hear his mumbles. By the time I released my finger from the trigger, the morning sky was already clear and the ground beneath my feet had a momentary shower of crimson. He still showed some vital signs—his eyes had a menacing stare that darted through the misty space between our faces—as he laid there with his final breaths, so I had to shoot him again. One thing is certain: the second bullet is always worth more than the life of all traitors in the world combined.

We left his body as an offering to the unknown scavengers of the vast forest. As it should be, a traitor's grave is his own carcass.

I have heard the news. Without much suspicion, the surrender of the Japanese to the Americans heralds the end of their protracted war in a land that belongs to neither belligerent. The Land of the Rising Sun has finally met its sunset and the shadows in Nippon will stretch longer until they become one with the night. Together with their white conscripts, Sherman tanks will have to be shipped back to America as well. Long after their mass transports have sailed and flown back to the bosoms of their motherland, the dust in Manila and elsewhere in the country will eventually settle, revealing a macabre sight at the wake of an insolent war that has nothing to do with glory. The remains of the victims of the mass annihilation will have to stay a little longer. I can imagine it now. For days and weeks, the streets of Manila will turn into a marketplace of dead and mutilated bodies with not one wartime survivor able to set the kinsfolk apart from the stranger. They will all look the same in blood and scattered debris of concrete asphalt.

It frightens me to think that people will never know this little insurrection that we are waging. Death trails us through this wretched spine of terra incognita that probably extends from the city to more mountains than we can count. There is every chance to die from the crossfire, if not from starvation or the wrath of nature. I can imagine it now, too. We will all look the same in blood and the thick foliage falling from the forest canopy and onto our corpses.

I just found out that Saint Jude the Apostle is the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations. Sometimes I get to think that heaven has its ways of stupefying a carefully chosen number of men by playing divine jokes on them, until they come to the point that they want to wring their hearts dry, as if to cleanse the heart from its own blood. But I like it that way. I like divine comedy more than anything else. Religion is too hilarious to be even granted a serious thought.

By the way, I have not seen your sister, Sylvia. The last time I saw her was January this year back in Manila. Now, she isn't in the mountains, either.

Two hundred miles closer to where you are,


Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Letter from Pili

[Part 2 of the "Insurrections" series]

Pili, Camarines Sur
September 11, 1945

Dearest Antonio,

First, let me say that I do not write letters to a dead man with as much frequency as I write news articles in the local daily for the living. It is bad enough to be a journalist under the guise of a name I do not own. The worst part of the bargain is that I have to use a man's name. Still, if I write at all, the length is short but the points, I reckon, are succinct. With that in mind, I cannot help but say what I have to say, or write what I have to write. Pardon me but this is the closest I can get to playing French—like a Chinese mouthpiece for a Bonaparte standing before a cavalry of French revolutionaries—without being one.

Avoid flooding your words with metaphors just to make a point. Consider the art of cooking. You do not want to put too much water for your broth. Otherwise, it will end up tasting just like water and not quite like succulent beef or chicken stew. Like having a mistress, always treat your metaphors with impassioned care, but do so at the right moment by having a design in mind. Either you spread them around in places where they should necessarily fall or you concentrate them in a paragraph as if they carry the weight of the whole narrative. They are the iron bars that hold together the entire structure in one formidable piece.

Consider martial arts. Counter punches or kicks are only thrown in the right angle at the right time. Precision is as vital a virtue as timing. With blades, the trick is to spot the proper flesh to inflict the incision without getting wounded yourself.

While that is so, do not be stale. Every sentence is suspect of feigning originality. It may have already been written in the past long before you were even born. Synonyms and negative antonyms may come handy; both are not always the same. Think that the reader who knows her literature may find your prose the very epitome of all things empty, like a hollow jar, should you fail to temper your words with the right adjectives. Do not forget, though, that a misplaced adjective can be as glaring to the eyes as a stain on pristine white cloth. Not only will it not make sense; it will not make anything sensible at all. It will ruin everything. Sometimes, a descriptive word or phrase can be one too many when one is not needed.

But what the hell, a letter is not a newspaper entry.

In your letter, you said you were already dead. That is good. It is a sign that you are still alive, at least on the day you wrote it. I cannot help but wonder. You write of death as if you have been there before and you have risen from your grave on the third day to tell the world about it, like a messiah. I sense trouble fomenting close to where you are. Your sympathies do not go with either the Japanese or the Americans. Be careful, the bullets of the Constabulary might eventually nail you to your coffin. I understand, though, that your insurrection against all semblances of authority in Manila is the least of your worries. But remember this: not every force is always against you.

Not too long ago, my father would chop firewood from large logs with ease. He would maul every fallen tree mercilessly until it turns into a hundred or more pieces of itself, yet the way he did it tired him the least. By the time he swung his axe for the final hack of the day, he still had enough strength to transport the piles back to our hut which was at least half a kilometer from the site. I remember now that gravity is an invisible force but is nevertheless there, waiting to be harnessed with the swing of the hatchet, causing damage beyond repair to anything laid before it.

I know you can see through metaphors with little aid and write one with urgent dispatch. It will take little effort for you to milk the essence out of this letter, from the first paragraph until at this point. We live in a time more interesting than one could think.

One more thing. The pen and moleskin were for my sister, Sylvia, but since you already have them with you they are now yours. Treat them as my gift for having taken good care of her for three months. I know Manila is not the friendliest place for girls from the province in these turbulent times. If by any chance you get to see her one of these days, send her my regards. But do not bother yourself too much with my request; I wrote her a separate letter.

Five hundred miles away,


Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Without the Sun

[Submitted for and published in UP Portia Sorority's Literary Folio, "Eden (Parole 2011): Art, Poems, Essays & Short Stories"]

If there are seven years in a week, it was Monday when I first met her. Soon, my life revolved around the sun.

On their first night as husband and wife, Elohim said let there be light, and there was light. Before entering the room, Ryne’s mind was already pregnant with ideas. Thirteen minutes before midnight, she began to undress. Elohim thought he could see her idea clearly. He thought Ryne’s body was the very corpus delicti of her mind’s conspiracy with the flesh. In fact, he thought the idea was clearer than the vague outline of the goldfish swimming inside the fishbowl, the only glass apparatus inside the room that reflected the light from the flickering bulb on the ceiling. Five floors below the apartment, Mahogany Drive was nearly silent and empty.

Ryne finally stripped the last fabric that shielded her body from Elohim’s inquisitive stare. The thong flew out the open window, like Icarus gaining altitude for a few seconds only to have its wings melted by the light not of the fiery sun but of the moon on the first month of spring. It fell on the concrete pavement with a very faint thud that the rest of the world will never hear.

Barely a few minutes later, the small alarm clock at the bedside rang, signaling that it was already twelve and that, by force of an unspoken agreement, it was Elohim’s turn to have his orgasm. He failed, though.

“It must be the wine at the reception,” Elohim said to his defense and continued to pump his way to the lovely heights of nirvana. Ryne could only moan while her eyes squinted as if she was going through a painful labor—perhaps a false genesis of the cosmos.

I knew Ryne since first year. College life was promising then and I was single. I tried every possible way to talk to her for at least three minutes but she was excellent at being evasive on many occasions. For a woman her size and age, it was not surprising. She was slender at five feet and four inches, with bosoms that curve like a perfect parabola. The shape of her impressive legs partly reveals stories of countless jogs on afternoons lovelier than any summer sunset I have ever witnessed. Her hips were like a machina animata calibrated to surpass the rudimentary tests of aesthetics. She was beautiful then and, perhaps, she still is. Our undergraduate degrees share nothing in common; she engineered and I philosophized. In a way, we were opposite charges that can create a massive lightning storm. Differences make a subtle prognosis for the course of a chronic disease that can kill. In each attempt to bridge the divide, there are dangers. There is one way to let you know how much she meant to me in the past: compress the rest of the universe in a single human body, a divine creation that no god can ever shape, let the weight of every atom there is collapse in a single quantum, and you have your answer.

On their second day, Elohim said let a firmament be, and the sky soon cut across the waters above and below. It did not take long before Elohim could finish in the shower. Ryne was waiting outside the door, eyes fixed on the distant shore that filled the view of the window across the bedroom, like a painting of a still morning after the storm. The towel in her hands was pink; small white roses were embroidered on its every square inch. Elohim gently pushed the door from inside and found Ryne unmoved at the doorstep of the bathroom.

“Hey beautiful, it’s your turn now,” Elohim whispered to her ears. She nodded and went inside. Turning the knob clockwise, cold sprinkles of water gushed through the holes of the shower and landed on her body. Her supple skin was a tender barrier from the intrusion but it was a barrier nevertheless. For some reason, Ryne could not imagine herself sharing a bath with Elohim although she can perfectly see herself commune with his body, which in fact they did on their honeymoon escape at the apartment.

I think I know why. When people make love, two bodies become united. While in full submission to that epic display of passion, one can no longer distinguish which body belongs to whom, or who belongs to which body. The skin is dissolved and every intruder is granted permission. This rarely happens during showers, unless the couple decides to convene themselves into a single body just as before, by which time it becomes more than a mere shower of water. It will be a deluge of passion. This is what Ryne desires. All her life she has waited for her love—not necessarily for Elohim—to be consummated by marriage and not the other way around. A college diploma, a rank in the civil engineering national board examinations, a master’s degree, a stable job and seven years after, she knows she has waited long enough.

On the third day, Elohim created earth, separated it from water, and decreed flora to flourish. The park had the pleasant scent of flowers that day and the lawns were greener than usual. The first month of spring radiated life everywhere. Ryne sat on the mat while Elohim went back to the car to fetch the basket of food they took with them. By the time he returned, she was still contemplating. The sound of the flutter of the birds in the middle of flight failed to distract her.

“Is everything fine?” Elohim asked as he sat beside Ryne. His tone was crisp but she did not notice. Her mind was preoccupied. She thought her abrupt decision to marry him after six months of having been engaged was like the Big Bang Theory; it began with a big bang but has now somehow reduced itself into just another theory. It all looked so good on paper, she lightly mumbled, herself not knowing if she was referring to the marriage contract or a clandestine memory she yearns to hold by her gentle hands. The brisk idea of having committed a mistake, momentary as it was, sprung to her senses.

But revolutionary theories—some akin to inciting to sedition more than others—are oftentimes nipped at their bud. Aristarchus proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun at a time when everybody else levied the contrary principle. Through dissent either by force or by silence, maybe even both—silence by force and force by silence—his proposition was nullified. Thereafter, the world believed as it wanted to believe for another two thousand years or so, until the genius of Nicolaus Copernicus proved the world wrong. When the head of the monster shows itself the very first time, the authority must swing his sword against the neck of the creature with as much zeal and emergency as reviving a patient who lost a vital sign. I think Ryne hardly brushed off the idea of the mistake even as soon as she realized Elohim was making his fingers run the course of her brown hair. It brought her back to life, a resurrection from a brief death, a death through silence by force and force by silence.

“I rarely make mistakes, and when I do, I do them on purpose,” Ryne said which left Elohim perplexed, unable to squeeze a word out of his lungs, as if for the first time in his life he was gazing at a revolution of parabolani monks against god, marching down the horizon lines and not knowing how to confront it.

On the fourth day, Elohim separated light from darkness to mark the seasons, to have a sense of time, like putting on a wristwatch over his coat by accident because he was in a hurry for an early meeting with a Chinese contractor. Ryne had to stay at home for the next three weeks. She was on leave but she was being paid for it. It is one of the few rewards that a wife can have for having the owner of the company as her husband’s high school chum. The company ordered the steel frames from Britain and all the rest were made in China.

Elohim was an ambitious man and he wanted to give the world to Ryne, all the while forgetting to give his self, the only thing she learned to want. She learned it after she saw him standing with her before the altar and the priest, exchanging vows that capture an eternal promise in two words of three letters. Doubtless, he gave his body but she is yet to receive his soul. Maybe he has been working too much lately, to the point that he sees everything as payment by installments. He must have been willing to give his soul by fractions.

I offered my soul, every sprite and form of it, but lost it as early as Monday. I told her I love her but she only walked away. By Tuesday, she transferred to another campus, a hundred miles from where I spent my lifeless days until Saturday, the sixth day.

On the fifth day, Elohim commanded the seas and skies to have fauna—animals of shapes and sizes, swimming and flying in all directions—and his word was given flesh. Sitting by the porch of their house, Ryne remembered the vague outline of the goldfish swimming inside the fishbowl, the only glass apparatus inside the apartment that reflected the light from the flickering bulb on the ceiling. It was in the apartment where she and Elohim had their literal honeymoon escape. They were supposed to proceed to their hotel room by night after the wedding reception but Ryne had another thing in mind. She wanted a different place, somewhere nobody would expect them to stay. It was her way to test her own limits.

“The apartment at Mahogany Drive will be a fine substitute,” Ryne said.

“Are you serious? It’s not in any way as comfortable as the room I reserved at the Grand Hotel for our honeymoon,” Elohim spoke with a hint of partly restrained surprise. Unfortunately, there was nothing that Elohim could do to convince Ryne. She was now his wife for the last seven hours. She has decided and her decision is not to be taken as a suggestion, even if it had the consequence of forfeiting a thousand dollars spent on a large mattress in a quaint hotel room that will certainly be one of the emptiest beds in the city come late evening.

Marriage is a strange creature. I have never been married but I have seen how it has domesticated some people and how it has liberated some others. It operates with precision in its inconsistency. This is not a secret. Many novelists and journalists have written about the subject decades ago, only that very few dared to read thoroughly. I wonder what is so attractive about a sanctified union or a civil matrimony that men and women rush to it as if they have rediscovered a lost limb that will complete them again. Perhaps, I am old and have not grown any wiser.

On the sixth day, Elohim ordered the land to be filled with more living creatures, including humans. Their wedding was as grand as a royal ceremony. Prominent people were invited and the receipts for the bills piled faster than they can say “I do.” Elohim fancied a lush matrimonial celebration since day one and simply cared less about the price he had to pay. After all, Ryne was about to be his queen for the rest of his life and he her king, or slave, whichever she preferred at any given time.

When the exchange of vows was over, they became the better half of one another, at least on paper where it all looked so good. But what if she pledged to be his wife only for better and not for worse, for richer and not for poorer, in health but never in sickness, until death finally liberates either one of them from the onerous obligation of fidelity? I cannot impose an answer on her behalf.

When it was time to settle the place for their honeymoon, it was clear: she was the empress and he was her slave whose vote she may consider but which will never count in the end. They drove to Mahogany Drive in the evening.

On the last day, a Sunday as it is called, Elohim rested. He rested a bit earlier, at about thirteen minutes before midnight. That is, he rested his body on top of Ryne’s. Midnight struck and it was already Sunday. Contrary to his expectations, he failed to have an orgasm first thing in the morning, or by twelve. Ryne could only moan while her eyes squinted, as if she was going through a painful labor—perhaps a false genesis for the cosmos—while Elohim continued to make a man of himself.

The word “Sunday” takes its origin from countless languages, all ancient, but they all mean the same thing—day of the sun. It does not require an explanation that carries the depth of a critical essay to understand the etymology. As you would know by now, the sun is at the center of the solar system and that the Earth revolves around it. Aristarchus was right. Copernicus was right. With the sun at the heart of everything in the solar system, it deserves the attention of the world for a whole day each week, no matter how meaningless it has become for an old man.

I spent my lifeless days a hundred miles away from her until Saturday, the sixth day, which is the day I decided to live where she was staying. It was somewhere in that city which I do not know exactly where. I stayed at a room in an apartment along Mahogany Drive. Five floors below, the street was empty most of the time. There was not much to do except to find her. I think I had a dream once. In that dream, Ryne was there.

“I found you,” I said, standing outside the door of my apartment unit. My clothes were wet and the storm that night felt the least ominous of previous weather disturbances.

“But you already lost your self. You are no longer the same. You are empty.”

“Because I offered you my self that Monday and I came to the city to look for it.”

“You don’t remember,” she said, mocking my presence with the smile I have not seen in almost seven years. She looked like a wisp standing by the window. I went in and shut the door. The next thing I know, I could no longer tell whose body belonged to whom. Ryne was a part of me as much as I was a part of her. We did it in the shower that evening, and the bed was not spared from our tryst. I think our bodies were one—opposite charges liable for a massive lightning storm, suddenly reunited—until the morning sun broke through the fading nimbus, but I cannot be certain. Sometimes I have the same memory as that of the goldfish I had in my room fifty years ago. I was twenty-three at the time. I do not even recall if the building still stands today. Old age has a way of terrifying human memory.

And then I remember I was told that she was about to get married by spring. So I went away, far from Mahogany Drive, knowing fully well that the day she marries will be the death of all possibilities. It will be irreversible and unbearable. But I have lived since the end of Sunday, the seventh year of the week, which was the last time she was at the center of the solar system. Since then, life has been dark but beautiful.

I now live in a hospice waiting to die on a Sunday and hoping to be proven wrong at the last minute.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First Letter from the Grave

[Part 1 of the "Insurrections" series]

San Roque Cemetery, Manila
August 16, 1945

Beloved Matilda,

My sky is the ground. From where I am, there is no rain to speak of, not even a cloud or a silver lining. There is no sun either, only a complete darkness that consumes everything and leaves desolation in its wake, one that is not necessarily ugly. Sometimes, even a blind man can see beauty in absolute nothing. I am not blind, though, just dead.

But these objects of vision, of aesthetics and of romanticized narratives deserve scant notice for I no longer have eyes. You, however, may lavish them on your bidding. It should never be a sin to commune with the sky and the earth. We are all very much part of everything else there is, there has been, and there will ever be. But that is for Hindus to say.

The beauty of the world, no matter how trivial, can live on its own without the need to summon a dead man just to testify about its glory. The corpse of a strange friend, or a friendly stranger, can no longer tell if there is still a universe out there, or at least disprove that a universe existed way before people began to listen to servile profiteers called priests, they who think that they carry the weight of the world on their cassock. A dead man cannot argue a point, much less speak. From where I am, though, peace springs eternal. There has never been an angry god traipsing the borders of banality and dogma, or a throng of false ascetics obsessed with the thought of chopping off the heads of infidels. I am saying these things because verbosity is always rare from a man dead for a month and twelve days.

You can envy the state of affairs that we have. The feeling of solitary calm comes in unperturbed abundance. Here, silence is a plague which the dead will never die from. It makes us a step closer to immortality at the expense of being there.

I am writing you this for no serious reason. People always try to find a reason to everything, as if they are squeezing water from stone, unabashed, and with the same exhilaration as someone eager to decode a cipher. No doubt, they have the one thing which creatures already reduced to ashes and bones no longer have—a brain. I hope they are quite aware of that stubborn fact. I wish I could tell them, perhaps through a litany contrary to everything solemn, foot on my grave and fist to the heavens, but they will not probably listen to a dead man. Besides, I can only take cudgels as far as my bravado will permit me. I may well even be the bravest coward ever to embrace death, similar to how lovers embrace an immaculate warm body.

Someday, you will share this same bed of soil with the rest of us, the unfortunate victims of the original sin whose only fault was to have been born. Because the population of us whose lives have already been purged is innumerable, one cannot help but feel a bit confused. I do not know who my neighbors are. I was already dead when our friends dug this hole for my death chamber. Sometimes, I am tempted to ask the names of those already in eternal repose if only I still have my lips, or if only I could borrow yours for three hours. It could well be a fine gesture, one that I have not really tried back in our barrio when I was still a young visionary. If you think that living with thousands of breathing strangers in an urban community is a sore bore, wait until you die. I tell you, there is no party here, only a slow gathering of carcass. The scent of fresh death is always nowhere near divine.

Only now do I truly appreciate how lovely death can be. There is more to death than the absence of life. For enclosing a pen and a moleskin in my casket, I am deeply indebted for what you did. You know me more than I know who I am. My eternal gratitude will be yours from tonight.

There is, however, one concern that I have. I find it rather odd to be buried in a cemetery named after the patron saint of gravediggers. It may as well be the most putrid insult I have ever had for being an atheist. Is this god's curse?

Six feet below,


Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5