Wednesday, December 28, 2011


[Part 2 of the "Flights" series]

OF THE TWENTY meters of the concrete lane baking under the flames of the summer solstice, there was nothing more than a few minutes of silence interspersed throughout the pounding of wooden batons against metal and the noise of wary footsteps from both ends. In the distance, a fire truck slowly cleaved through a sea of men in blue, grinding to a halt ten steps behind as it positioned itself, ready to engage the emerging crisis with the first sign of alarm, a crimson machine armed with a water cannon aimed at the front line, its tank redolent with rust and noxious fluid culled, perhaps, from wherever spite springs eternal. One by one, the shields that shimmered bleakly with the sunlight began to form a line, fencing the most vulnerable side of the platoon of young men who cannot hide beneath their uniforms the feverish thought of waging their first urban skirmish. The other side stood resolute. People clenched their fists as they linked their arms into a chain, their knees not to cower at the sight of the bodies about to advance, thick and strong like an army of vicious mercenaries out to plunder and rape anything that has a vital sign. In the seconds that followed, the banners were held higher as the voices turned into an ensemble of anger and indignation that permeated the open air. Nine years ago, the cerulean sky was about to witness the dispersal of sixty laborers and sympathizers who were almost certain to remember the third day of April for the rest of their lives.

Abel stood by the window as the light from the neon signs scattered throughout the city made the distance ahead and below faintly visible. Night fell almost twelve hours ago, and the urban landscape is still a shadow forged with the fluorescence of little sparkles. He can see his reflection on the glass panel that separated him from the rest of the outside world. He saw lethargy and felt it scrape his skin with feeble vitality, as though the ember deep in him was yet to cast its last remaining glow. Something else was there; the blackened scar that stretched across his left cheek tarnished his face like a wound that has festered through the years, though to his mind it was an insignia earned only by those who were brave enough to try to parry and break the blades of the enemy at the height of the siege. He touched the crease on his flesh and suffered no tinge of pain, the epidermis having turned callous as far as his memory allows.

“Hong Kong,” Martha weakly mumbled, her eyes closed, lips quivering as her body twitched a little as she lay crippled on the hospital bed. Abel could only look at her and at Madeleine who, sleeping at the opposite bed, still seemed impervious to everything, even her own pulse and breathing. Dropping on his knees, Abel wiped the corners of his eyes with his fingers and felt his own strength gradually wane in his palms, the liquid trickling down his face, drying him of his energy and some other force that previously burned in his conscience with great intensity his heart could barely refuse to melt in its fires.

The grip of his hands was firm, diminished as it may be, but the spirit that moves it has withered long ago. But there was a time when he could effortlessly carry the weight of bulky cables and polish the huge airplane engines to a radiant sheen as if they were new. There was a time when, with the simple push of his bare hands, he could roll the wheel of a Boeing from the tarmac to the hangar where it will undergo his careful inspection until his patience is rewarded with his own satisfaction. There was a time when he could repair tens of electronic panels by unrelentingly soldering them for a full day, in some instances even going beyond his work schedule, staying very late into the night inside the cavernous shed. There was a time, indeed, but it has now become what it simply is—a time gone to the recesses of human memory, drifting farther and farther until the mind can no longer come into terms with the need to remember.

“Hong Kong,” Martha whispered to no one in particular.

Abel tried to remember.

No apology was given that day, but unto his hands came a letter replete with every sign of expulsion from work. For Abel, it was not an ordinary correspondence addressed to whom little was given at the cost of toiling for life and limb. More than anything else, it was a marching order, a sheet of paper that typified the parlance of the destitute but willing, the message as scarlet as the blood coursing his ventricles. The picket line was already there when he arrived, his one hand clutching the furrowed letter, the other shaking with a fury so lightly restrained he could scarcely contain his rage beneath the merciless sun.

The collision left him staggering on the side of the road, his face red, a cut gaping on his left cheek like a second mouth without lips, voiceless but seething with the symptoms of an unspeakable ire. Crawling amidst the frenzy that enveloped him, Abel tried to get on his feet, but he was met with more bludgeons, the sirens squealing with the cries from the wanton disarray of bodies on the verge of emaciation, shields hammering away on the fallen, batons striking where the flesh is tender and the bones more brittle, rigid soles stampeding on those who had their backs toward the sky, until much later when the waters gushing from the cannon began to hose down the fiery tension. Only then did he release his hold on the letter so that he can feel the wound on his face.

“Hong Kong,” Martha repeated, but Abel was confined in his reverie. It would be the last he would hear from her. Minutes later, Madeleine also finally succumbed to the call of eternal repose. In the past, they have never returned in spirit, and now they are gone forever.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hong Kong, Hong Kong

[Part 1 of the "Flights" series]

SITTING ALONE by a table for two, Abel moistened his lips, his tongue gently wetting his dry mouth and the little cracks that line the edges of that tender but thin flesh where four summers of solitude have tempered an unspeakable drought, each a season of yearning beyond recognition. He could see the short distance ahead through his eyeglasses. Everyone seemed busy, even with doing nothing.

A woman whose face is caked with powder and rouge hurriedly passed by for the fifth time, dragging with her stubby arms and fingers a heavy luggage that looked as though she had the rest of her life in tow, her shoddy dreams rammed inside what limited space the bag could offer. Two young men patiently stood in the middle of the lobby, their animated conversation bearing all the signs of relief and comic anticipation. From time to time, the orchestra of chatter from idle strangers would blend with the sound of the massive engines throttling through the vast runway just beyond the glass windows, taunting everything with their whirling noise until the skies have beckoned their ascent. Abel raised the cup and tasted the familiar bitterness of the warm brew, its scent hovering around him in faint trickles, keeping him awake, if not alive, three hours before sunrise.

His velvet sweater clung to his body but the pores on his ageing skin still suffered the merciless chill trapped inside the building. The tiled floor reflected all the light from the ceiling lamps, illuminating the marble squares where the shadows should have been. Abel could see the reflections everywhere, some not as disconcerting as the images of those responsible for their being, and some others as confusing as the reasons why people have to come and go, the unfortunate ones never to return. He thought of Martha and Madeleine, and how almost thirty years between the girls have aged them into more like siblings and less like mother and daughter.

Martha had to return to Hong Kong before the second Sunday of January. In one of the busy intersections in that metropolitan landscape, the household she served had a short grasp of why Filipinos had to lavish themselves with spirited moments of rekindling family ties when the world overseas held the promise of an opulent life—the very reason why Martha was there, begrudgingly swallowing the little ounce of pride she had reserved for her self—and an even shorter patience for waiting for the household helper to breathe air. Without keeling from remorse, they could easily replace her with someone willing to even serve her own placenta on a silver platter for dinner and all things more servile in exchange for an anorexic paycheck. They have all the reasons in the world to hoist their audacity like a divine right acquired simply by virtue of having been born in a fertile colony, and never regret the days when they have used them.

Madeleine stood resolute if not adamant in joining her mother abroad, at least for a while, when her college graduation hanged too close to her mouth she could almost taste half of it. She felt she held the universe in her hands, tucked serenely on her palms and fingers, as though its immeasurable expanse were carried by the weight of her passport and plane ticket. She had her eyes set on the seven continents, crossing out one country after another, each city a remote planet waiting to be conquered by her restless desire to leave behind whatever mark she can on foreign territories, and Hong Kong, she thought, shall be the first to satiate her virgin appetite.

Four years ago, in that same table where Abel now drank his third cup of black coffee, the three of them had their last dinner together. Since then, the airport was never the same.

It took almost two days to rescue Martha and Madeleine in the high seas, their bodies almost emaciated from thirst and hypothermia, flesh and bones almost surrendering to the impulse of death. For forty-eight hours Abel could not find refuge in sleep. Not even a blink can lull him to neverland. When they were finally brought to the hospital, Martha and Madeleine could not speak. By the time they were able to talk, their mouths could only utter “Hong Kong, Hong Kong,” their weak voices replete with desperation, as though Hong Kong was the only place left in the world, the last frontier, the sole bastion of fortune and exuberance, the only habitable dwelling where the trees and buildings race to the sky against the backdrop of an infinitely blue ocean. Abel lost them somewhere between here and there, their spirits in the deep waters sinking faster than the engines of the airplane, never to reach the bottom until they have breathed their last. “Hong Kong, Hong Kong.”

At thirty minutes past three in the morning, Abel waited for the voice in the overhead speakers. But there was none, nothing to announce the arrival of a plane from Hong Kong that should have landed four years ago, nothing to signal the return of Martha and Madeleine for they have never really left. Neither have they really returned. They are just there, somewhere closer to Hong Kong but never there. Perhaps they are somewhere between the arrivals and the departures, a purgatory for those who were to journey elsewhere.

Abel went back to the hospital. Tomorrow, the wait begins anew.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5