Sunday, December 31, 2006

Death by denial

AFTER the Last World War, denial replaced capital punishment as the last and only deterrent for crime.

As the smart bombs nearly wiped out the entire human race, as well as all of private property, it seemed superfluous to make petty distinctions between bicycle theft and rape, for instance.

It was hard to find a wheel, let alone a bicycle still standing. A man had to walk through thousands of miles of devastation before he might chance on another human being. All that exertion put an end to one’s soles, as well as any instinct, base or noble.

In any case, if someone broke the law, there were precious few left to do the squealing, arresting, interrogating, judging, guarding and rehabilitating. It was less tedious to just deny any crime.

But after the reconstruction was well under way, the Religionists feared that the search for wheels and companionship could no longer keep at bay the dark side of humanity.

The Religionists believed a new world order could only come to be if a person succeeded in subjecting the body to the discipline of the will.

Believing that the human skin, as the root of all sensation, was the hotbed of criminality, the Religionists outlawed any kind of baring, private or public. They figured it was easier to deny if people were also incapacitated from desiring and touching and getting into all sorts of monkey business.

Hence, the invention of the Suit. A cross between a monk’s cassock and a knight’s suit of armour, it was totally devoid of fashion sense. It did have strategic chinks for breathing, smelling and other bodily functions.

In hot or cold weather, it was torture inside the suit. One was always fighting not to drown in sweat or die of blood loss from extreme chafing. The suit took care of all cravings criminal in nature until the year 0917 when an Asian male assigned to the Museum of Past Glories attempted to do the undeniable.

Listed as No. 80-8 in the index of demographics, the duster was tasked to keep spotless every artifact in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Although they had routinely denied till they were blue in their face, the Religionists were all too aware of 80-8’s near mishaps: once, in Oceania, and then twice in the wilds of America, his suit had dangerously overheated, indicative of a rise in criminal desires.

Figuring he could do no wrong in a room full of mummies and moth-eaten sarcophagi, the Religionists reassigned 80-8 to Ancient Egypt and promptly forgot he existed.

This suited 80-8. In the course of his duties, he chanced upon the half of a head of a prehistoric queen. Whether during some forgotten war or the Last Great One, the yellow-stone head was sheared clean from the top, leaving only a dimpled cheek, the imperious jut of chin, and full, shiny stone lips that 80-8 longed to warm with his own.

The suit, of course, restrained him. He could not bend down or lift up those forlorn jasper lips. The slit that sliced the upper bow of those engorged lips so distracted his days and nights, it finally drove him mad.

When the Religionists rushed to check what was burning up the Ancient Egypt Wing, they found that 80-8 had burnt to a crisp inside his suit. They did not suspect he perished from a fatal denial of desire as the head of Queen Tiye, consort of Amenhotpe III, was its usual half, even very well dusted.

Ruling that self-immolation usually purifies any hazardous remnant of the human soul, the Religionists dumped the charred remains in the State Pit. After they fiddled with their digital file, 80-8 ceased to exist. This spared the Religionists from having to deny him at all. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu last Dec. 31, 2006

Monday, December 25, 2006

At heart

IN THE mountains, Christmas is a brown affair.

From makeshift stalls along the highway, the colors of tinsel sometimes glimmer. Silver or gold can be glimpsed in the latest braided belt or hair clip of habal-habal (improvised motorcycles) passengers taking a break from work in the city.

But for these reminders, the mountains are unchanged by the holiday cheer that has taken over the city we left behind.

Recent rains have left the place green. But it is the ordinariness of brown that provides rest to senses fatigued by the city clamor.

Brown is the hue of old newspaper, folded, crushed and tied to become an improvised bag holding candies and gum.

Why does such an ordinary thing, when it hangs above a blindfolded child swinging a pole, draw from children a sound like a thousand lungs bursting?

Brown, too, is the color of half an onion, forgotten and molding behind plastic containers of water.

Water is buried deep in this mountain bosom. Yet, in the moist December air, a sprig of green sprouts from a shriveled onion cheek.

Our hosts offer pork stewed, diced, fried. But it is the bisol in its gnarled brown skin that we peel and name.

Bisol in Alegria is bisol in Dalaguete, lying on the other side of the mountain.

Public school teacher Domingo knows the root crop as karlan in Davao; apara in Negros Oriental.

Why would such a homely lump go by so many names?

Fellow teacher Nene observed, after decades of crisscrossing Visayas and Mindanao, that bisol is central in life in the mountains.

Few can compare with the bisol’ for sustenance and dependability. It stores well so people fall back on it during drought or in between planting seasons.

Not half as pretty as the purple-veined gabi, bisol thickens and makes any soup tasty.

How is the root crop called in English?

We trail for a while after yam and plantain before giving up. Quite possibly, bisol does not exist in the English language.

Edwin, teacher of Spanish, believes we can only name what is part of us.

Orange in color and sweetness, dawat (newly harvested coconut wine) is savored by two kinds of sips. Tilaw will test the brew’s character, whether it is tam-is, halang-halang, kisom, aplod.

Edwin claims that among friends meeting in a tayakan or tuba-an (place collecting and selling tuba or coco wine), friendship is savored slow and best through takmi.

Who has time for takmi today?

Looking around the table, I see persons who could have halved their backlog had they chosen not to play under the sun and shout themselves hoarse with school children.

I remember unexpected gifts with clods of earth still clinging: the weed mangagaw to be brewed to shield a child from dengue, the elusive kutsitsai finally found and brewed for diabetes, and bisol of course.

I am grateful for the endless, listening silences found in a life in the mountains.

Most of all, for the gift of stories. One of my favorites comes from Edwin, who spent seven years as a student-missionary in Mexico.

The Aztecs’ version of “kumusta” is polysyllabic: tlenketohuamoyoltzin.

Rather than ask politely how someone is doing, the Aztec addresses directly his or her center: what says your heart? 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 24, 2006 issue

Rooster with Personality Disorder

TO THOSE drunk on late-night reading, no figure can be more fiendish these days than that of the petty poultry potentate, the rooster.

As a self-respecting devotee of cats, I have no love for birds.

Yet I am now bleary-eyed from concentrating for a cue from this fowl creature.

The reason is simple. In barely five hours, the pompous green-purple-with-a-dash-of-orange rooster of our neighbor will warble in a deep baritone that it is three A.M., time for our household to wake and prepare for the first of the nine-day dawn masses.

Our neighbor’s rooster loves his crowing so much, he can barely wait for the night to decently roll up its mat and keep the dawn from seeing its barbaric state.

But while admitting that our neighbor’s rooster has a better chance than I of meeting and exchanging call cards with San Pedro’s very own manok (chicken), I concede that, for love of my God and my family, I attempt, every year, to be more Catholic than lapsed.

As my yaya never fails to remind me, the faithful who attend the whole nine-day novena of the Misa de Gallo or Simbang Gabi are assured that their petitions receive a fair hearing at the Pearly Gates.

If not turned a blinding white, a soul as dingy as mine may still trick the weak of eye that it has been leached of 9.9 percent-blackness.

All these thoughts I direct now with all malevolence and malice to our neighbor’s rooster who, by the deep silence reigning on their side of the fence, must be sleeping as soundly as an innocent babe.

When it will be my time to nod off, the creature will begin his breathing exercises before launching on to full orchestral maneuvers.

So are the sinful punished.

This year, to spare my heathen soul, I am attempting not to sleep anymore so even before Bach-a-doodle-doo starts crowing, I am dressed and ready before anyone else.

Alas, my Internet trawling has snagged me more of the feathered wretch. From Alejandro R. Roces’ Dec. 14, 2006 feature for The Philippine Star, I first learn that the Misa de Gallo tradition, which culminates with the Misa de Aguinaldo or midnight mass on Christmas eve, literally means “Mass of the Rooster.”

Not only is my Fowl Friend naturally obeying his inclinations, he even has doctrinal permission.

According to Roces, Rome decreed that the Philippines follow Mexico in offering masses at cock’s crow during the 16th century. This was to give farmers and their households a chance to worship before leaving for the fields.

Much has changed though since the 16th century. The elegant terno and barong, which Roces says filled churches to the rafters, have been replaced with jeans, shorts and Chuck Taylors.

The scenes he paints of community—brass bands playing Filipino Christmas classics to wake families and parish priests knocking on doors of every home—seem quaint and somehow alien.

I should say that now, if the faithful do attend mass, they do so despite their perceptions of some priests and the lack of leadership in a Church still groping in the darkness of abuse charges and worldliness.

Times have changed. In pre-Christian and Christian mythology, the rooster was held up as a herald of sunrise, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness.

This belief in man’s resurrection after every fall from grace stems from the legend, which Roces quotes, that a rooster crowed when the Child in the manger was born, “Christus Natus Est (Christ is Born)!”

A Latin-speaking bird is rather too much of a mouthful to swallow. But roosters now have my sympathy.

For in Biblical lore, the phoenix bursts into flames but always rises from its ashes. According to, a mother pelican will pluck her own breast during famine to feed her own young before dying.

But no such consistency for the rooster. Sometimes it is a herald of resurrection; at other times, the traitor that crowed thrice after Peter betrayed Jesus.

Two more hours and then I go join Christiandom. At cock’s crow, who will the flock see leading the offering of the Holy Eucharist: herald or traitor? 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 17, 2006 issue

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Lights on

ON THE phone the other night, my mother asked me to describe how the streets looked.

With my thoughts mainly on supper, my sons’ assignments and my own paperwork (in that strict order), I rattled off about the new lamp-posts, gigantic parol and impressive island landscapes.

Well, how do they look? my mother pressed.

I found I had no details to share.

Even if we pass blazing streets on the way home, I realized I didn’t see the lights.

The boys’ Christmas fair practices and the shopping-swollen evening traffic have us now crawling out of the city long after the sun has set.

But it might just as well be some other disc hanging in the sky for all the notice I give the sun, moon or alien bubbleship.

I keep time with my scratch-faced Seiko, set half an hour advanced.

My mother’s question made me recall a comment I made while chatting with fellow teachers before our 7:30 A.M. classes. To a remark that Christmas seemed to take a long time coming this year, I added that I missed the cool air.

Its nip, along with my father’s coffee and first cigarette of the day, used to wake me at dawn. Our family’s ageless pepper-shaped Christmas lights (22, working; 2, busted) were usually blinking by then, without sound.

It’s odd how the young associate light with food this season.

Despite my father’s repeated caution, it was a burnt index finger and thumb that showed me how the red peppers running along our small manger were as hot to touch as these were fiery to look at.

Last night, when we passed clusters of light swaying from trees along Mandaue, Juan, 8, said they were like Lola Veling’s grapes.

After taking another look, I realized he was right: they truly looked like the swirls of light reflected by the crystal “ice-drops” in my grandmother’s tree, which once held scarlet balls that were like sour-sweet macopa to my eyes when I was my son’s age.

Seeing the street lights with the eyes of an eight-year-old made me realize how I nearly made a mistake of thinking that Christmas was never coming.

When Christmas came after anticipating the 13th-month pay, I found it to be quick and short. But the quiver of expectancy from watching lights flicker on, one by one, leaves inside a glow that’s as warm as a child’s hug.

With many of the streets decked out for international visitors, it is quite a spectacle now to drive to places in the evening. From the inside of a car, the city is entangled in streaming ribbons of fantasy.

But nothing beats walking home at day’s end and singling out, from the myriad ornaments shimmering in the neighborhood, a set of lights remembered well: the porch bulb, the fluttering tinsel star pasted in a rush for a class project, lights from familiar windows.

My wish is that each of us finds the beacons leading us home this Christmas. 0917-3226131

(Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 10, 2006 issue)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Father Veils

ROSARIO’s mother heard mass on Sundays because she believed good Catholics sacrificed to receive the body of Christ.

Rosario, then 9, only felt the sacrifice: waking at dawn, walking three kilometers to town, putting on her shoes only when they reached the highway.

In the church, it was another sacrifice not to close her eyes from the warmth of so many bodies packed tightly within those eggshell-white walls.

Rosario preferred it when all the pews were occupied. She and her mother then had to stand near one of the alcoves.

Because her mother was preoccupied keeping her place in the crowd and fingering the beads of her rosary while listening to the priest, Rosario could look, undisturbed, at the statues enshrined in the alcoves.

Aside from candle melt, sweets and flowers, there was sometimes a miniature or two left at the foot of the statue of a saint or the Virgin Mother.

These miniatures were often chipped, faded or dirty. These were gone after a week or two. Rosario revised her first impression that these were offerings left by devotees.

The statuettes, she believed, were taken back by the owners when they thought these had absorbed some of the power in the church statues.

Rosario believed this because, whenever she lifted her gaze to the statue towering above her, she always found the glass, marble or painted eyes gazing back at her.

The girl imagined that infinite knowledge and infinite acceptance were reflected in those lacquered eyes fringed with stiff, brush-like lashes.

Rosario felt different about the Holy of Holies, the cabinet placed in the center of the altar. Before this, her mother prayed on her knees, genuflected, and prostrated herself on too many occasions to be counted.

Rosario’s earliest memory of mass had been the priest’s hands opening the cabinet doors, painted white and gold, to reveal red curtains.

A young Rosario had asked her mother what the priest was hiding from them.

But even the hushed tones of her mother telling her about the Body of Christ in the tabernacle had failed to impress Rosario.

If anything, the red curtains reminded her of the stage backdrop put up in the plaza during fiestas. That plaza curtain covered cracks and holes gouged in the wall.

When Rosario entered high school, she left her mother to work for a family in town. She studied in exchange for doing housework.

When the parish priest approached her mistress about a youth choir he was organizing, the devout lady volunteered Rosario’s Saturday afternoons.

Once, after choir practice, the priest instructed Rosario to return the music sheets to his room. That night, Rosario did not return to her employer’s house. She went back to her mother. She stopped schooling.

A day before she was to leave to become a helper in Dumaguete, she went to church, not to hear mass.

But she did not see him. Or if it was the same priest, he wore a mask. When his lids swept down and hooded his eyes, Rosario remembered the sensation she had as a child, watching red curtains fall and conceal what her mother and others could only whisper about. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 3, 2006 issue