Saturday, September 13, 2008

We the living

I SLIPPED out of a library consultation to get a mass card before the church office closed for lunch. Priests take the longest break in this country, and I wasn’t sure if their offices also kept the same siesta hours.

She and her son were seated on the stairs outside the church office. They might have waited there all morning. Or all their life.

I was in a hurry to go back. She should have been gripped by the same urgency. It looked as if her kid had not eaten breakfast or dinner or meals before that.

It was hard to look at him. I could say that it was why I looked at her instead but that isn’t the truth. I was just in a hurry and she was sitting in the way.

Sister, can you spare something for lunch? We have not yet eaten breakfast.

I pointed to the desk. This was not in answer to her appeal. This was just the natural reflex of someone who thinks the hungry is someone else’s problem.

But she apparently took my careless gesture as a response, more than what she expected from anyone that day. She followed me inside the office.

While I spelled out the name of my deceased tiyo on the slip of paper, she stood beside me. She ignored the church worker answering phones beyond the glass partition. But her thin voice, directed at that glass screen, fairly trembled in indignation.

I’ve asked them for help but they won’t give me rice.

The phone rang again. Before answering this, the church worker spoke to the glass: I told you that we don’t distribute the rice anymore. Go see Ms. SoandSo in the office next to ours.

Uncertain, I held on to the slip of paper, my petition for my tiyo’s eternal rest.

The woman told me: Since morning, I’ve been here. They won’t give me rice because Ms. SoandSo says I’m always turning up in her weekly list of 50 recipients. How can that be? I don’t see her fat face every week so how can she say she sees mine?

The phone was finally silent, or perhaps was now on siesta. The church worker took my petition and my money, and disappeared. We listened to the sound of typing. When the worker reappeared, waving the mass card to dry the ink, the woman began again.

What does Ms. SoandSo have against me? Will she believe her list more than our hunger?

Don’t take offense, sister. Ms. SoandSo is just having a tantrum and has closed the NFA today.

This reference to the National Food Authority was made by a woman who just stepped inside the office. The phone rang. The worker listened briefly and then told the second woman to pop into the next office and tell Ms. SoandSo to answer a call.

The NFA is closed today, the second woman repeated. But she still went out to check. When she came back and saw that a priest had just entered the office behind the partition, she perked up and greeted him: Here is Father. Hello, do you have good news for us? Ms. SoandSo is not giving rice today.

How long does typewriter ribbon ink dry? I wondered. The priest kept looking down. I wondered if he was avoiding her question or our eyes. But then he found the tape dispenser and secured strips to affix a label for a package he left behind.

He then spread his hands as if to bless the women waiting for his answer: you are better-off than I am because I come from a poor province while you are living in Cebu City.

What brought you this far, Father? Asked the second woman. I came from Danao. Now it looks like I’m going back without any rice to bring home.

While I was thinking if being poor in logic makes one a better priest, the church worker finally handed over the mass card. The wall clock showed it was noon.

Before I could escape, the mother of the boy slumped against the wall outside appealed again to me: sister, can you spare anything for lunch?

Had the choice been given to him, my tiyo, who hardly stayed sober for most of his 66 years, would have not dithered over his choice: rather than bribe to secure eternal rest for a soul, better feed the hungry, who will always be with us. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 7, 2008 issue

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