by Danton Remoto
Two weeks ago, I won the Third Prize in the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards for a short story called “Wings of Desire.” It is a very brief story I wrote 15 years ago. It was published in the Philippine Graphic magazine. I have received e-mail letters asking for copies of the story, and I am reprinting it here. Thank you.
Like me, my cousin Ramon was also the first-born child of my Uncle Conrado and his wife Emilia.
Papa woke me up early that summer. He told me to wash my face because we would go to Manila. My heart jumped with delight, especially when I saw that some of my clothes had already been stuffed in my Papa’s blue overnight bag.
Papa’s eyes were sad. He kissed Mama good-bye, and then we were gone. We took a pedicab that brought us to the gate. The young soldier on duty gave my father a crisp salute. Behind him stood the statue of a pilot cast in concrete, his eyes raised to the sky. Soon we were aboard a jeep bound for Guagua. As usual, the driver maneuvered the jeepney as if he were in Indianapolis 500. His jeepney zipped through the barrio road, the town’s main road, and finally the highway at the same suicidal speed. Huts and wooden houses and buildings and sticks of sugar cane blurred before us. It always frightened me.
I closed my eyes and dredged my mind for prayers. Miss Honey Joy Tamayo of Catechism class said that if you died with a prayer on your lips, you would go to Heaven straight away. So I began praying the rosary, over and over again, the three mysteries repeated for the nth time from Floridablanca to Guagua, a distance of 20 kilometers, using my fingers to count the Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes. If I did not go to Heaven, I thought, at least I’d be good in Math. The driver would suddenly step on the brakes, then rev the engine up again, swerve here and there, weaving in and out of our lane, the true king of the road.
On the dashboard above him, a strip of mirror ablaze with decals. Basta driver, sweet lover. Jingle lang ang pahinga (I only rest when I piss). Basta biyuda, walang aray (If it’s a widow, then there’s no pain). And directly in front of him, two women. On the left is a decal of a vamp, her overripe body spilling out of her glossy, red bikini; the other is the Blessed Virgin Mary, wearing layer upon layer of white clothes, a blue sash around her waist.
After 45 minutes, the jeepney swung around the big plaza of Guagua, and then we got off and waited for the bus bound for Manila. Usually they were air-conditioned Victory Liners, rare in those days, and once we had settled on our seats and paid for the tickets, Papa would begin to sleep, or rather, snore. I would be terribly embarrassed, but nobody seemed to mind, for almost everybody would lapse into sleep as the morning sun climbed higher in the clear sky of summer.
I would try to close my eyes, too, but from my shut eyelids, I could see the tiny red spots formed by the sunlight. So I would open my eyes again, then open the window and watch the world blur past me.
Three big, covered carts pulled by a bull traveled slowly on the shoulder of the road. The carts contained wicker chairs and small tables, mirrors and hammocks, shelves and baskets. The farmers from the North traveled down south after the harvest was over and the fields would lie fallow for months. Down south they hoped to sell the things they wove and plaited. They were framed by a billboard advertising the many legendary bounties of the country: the Banaue Rice Terraces and the Mayon Volcano, the swift-sailing vintas of Zamboanga and the Santo Nino of Cebu City, luring the tourists to this calm and peaceful country.
The other billboards were from Filoil and B-meg Feeds, Warren Briefs and Ajinomoto Vetsin, Vitarich and the Mobil gas station with the flying red horse. Rice saplings newly transplanted from their seedbeds, the young leaves stirring in the wind. On the left would rise Mount Arayat, a mountain shaped like a stump, smothered by the whitest of clouds. The fields would give way to nipa huts alive with the laughter of barefoot children with big bellies. Yellow rice grains left to dry on the sides of the road. White hens cackling. The morning melodrama from a transistor radio with its volume turned up so everybody could hear other lives endlessly twisting and turning. The nipa huts giving way to the grand, abandoned mansions of the sugar barons, the dry fountains and wide gardens choked by weeds, the heavy wooden doors now closed forever. And then the baroque churches: covered with moss and lichen, cratered by wind and rain. And in the air, the heavy, cloying smell of molasses from the mills of PASUDECO, inducing me finally to sleep. Ahhh, such lethargy, such a sweet sweet smell.
Manila would burst upon you like a bucket of icy water thrown on the face. The Bonifacio Monument loomed (the proletarian hero in a voiceless scream), the bus deftly circling the rotunda, and down we went to EDSA, the unbearable smell of the Cloverleaf Market, the diesel fumes darkening the air. We got off in a Cubao that still had no shopping malls, just small specialty shops and a row of movie houses. Then the jeepney ride to Sta. Mesa, so very fast, the miniature steel horses on the hood seemingly clop-clopping in the wind, the thin plastic strips of many colors flying, the jeepney swerving, going up and down a bridge, then here we were.
My uncle lived in his in-law’s house on a strip of government land behind the motels of Old Sta. Mesa. Gardenia, Seven Seas, Rose Tattoo, Exotica—I could still recall their names in a breathless rush, these places where supposedly illicit love happened between people not married to each other. Down we went, down, down the rough steps hewn out of stone. The wooden houses seemed to breathe into each other. One’s kitchen ended where another’s bedroom began. The alleys coiled round and round, like intestines. And when the rainy season came, everything turned muddy and a perpetually green slime covered the ground for days.
After Papa and I had turned this way and that, poking into someone else’s living room and scanning another’s open bedroom, we reached the place—a one-storey affair at the foot of the stairs of an old wooden house.
Even at noon, bright lights burnt in the living room. The candelabra’s fingers glowed. Under the lights, the coffin of my cousin Ramon.
My Aunt Emilia broke down at the sight of Papa. “Manoy, Mon is gone. What will I do?” Sobs tore from her chest, and the old women around her also began to cry. They were all in black. Like a flock of crows. Papa let her go on. She babbled that if she only knew Mon would sustain a bad fall and bash his head, her son who was torn away from her by the doctor’s forceps—
“I shouldn’t have allowed him to play basketball the previous afternoon. Manoy, should I tell Conrado?”
Silence. Papa seemed to weigh his words very carefully. Then, looking straight into my aunt’s eyes, actually looking through her, he said: “I think it’s best not to tell Conrado. I know my brother very well. He’ll take it badly. He might—” Papa sighed deeply. He suddenly looked tired, and very old. “He might even jump from the ship if he hears about it.”
My aunt sank silently on the sofa. She cried wordlessly. It was painful to look at her. I stood up and walked over to the coffin of Ramon.
Atop the glass was his photograph taken a month ago, so very young, his eyes like clearest water. The gold First Honor medal shone on his white polo shirt. Leis of white jasmine buds and yellow-green ylang-ylang flowers were hung around the photograph. And then, I looked down at him slowly.
In my dream my Uncle Conrado comes home. He has left behind him the North Sea cold enough to break even your bones. Now he is borne by waves that have slowly shaped themselves into the whitest of wings. The world below is a blue nothingness. The bird glides slowly, reaching an archipelago of the greenest islands, until it reaches the brown filth that is Manila. The bird alights finally at Old Sta. Mesa, and my uncle slides down its furry body. He waves farewell to the strange, magnificent bird. And then just as suddenly, the bird is gone.
Down, down, down the steps hewn from stone. The air closing in around my uncle, darkness descending, a door opening and closing on its one rusty hinge. Ramon? Ramon? where is my son Ramon? Words from the palest lips. The electric volt of pain crackling from one nerve ending to another.
Sometimes, when we call out a name, even the very wind crumbles.