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Chapter 1

The sun bore down on our village without mercy and every detail of life stood out and blazed with bright color and fury.  I had just been hired as a clerk for Manong Eddie, the captain of our barangay.  I was only 16 years old at the time and fairly green for such a lofty position, but my father was his son’s ninong and that’s usually all it took to move up in our barangay.  Manong Eddie knew I was a responsible kid, and did his best to expose me to the business of running the barangay, and in turn, I did whatever was asked of me.

Most of the people in our barangay worked hard, some were farmers, raised livestock or tilled the land for others.  The hot summers always made for long days, and most of their evening activities centered around the palengke, the intersection of commerce and life where dealings and relationships were negotiated, and gossip flowed freely like the Pasig.  Today I was taking a list of Manong Ed’s lucky numbers to the huweteng, the local numbers game.  The stakes were as high as ever this summer, built from the sweat and desires of the barangay.  Seduced by dreams of a life relieved of toil, even for a moment, was enough to plunk down part of your earnings for.  Even the captain of the barangay was not immune to this fantasy.

I walked from the plaza around the perimeter of the palengke and was greeted by a dense gathering of tricycles and a few jeepneys angling for position.  The market itself, a mountainous range of multi-colored plastic and corrugated metal extended behind them.  People were bustling to and fro and the manajeros awaited the opportunity to snatch up buziness with baited breath.  These guys rarely wore helmets or used seat belts, instead adorning their vehicles with religious imagery;  a brilliant depiction of the crucifixion emblazoned a side car, inscriptions reading “Mother of perpetual help” or “Jesus Miracle Crusade” decorated every angle, bumper and fender.

Between the vibrant displays of sitaw, okra, mangoes, and other produce, an opening led into the heart of the palengke.  As soon as you walked in, the sounds and smells overcame you.  The palengke looked to be several stands deep in all directions, illuminated by a web of crudely mounted lightbulbs strung together by electrical wire and twine.  Most outsiders would be instantly disoriented here, as there was no map that told you where to go, rather it was landmarks; certain vendors, collections of products that guided you to various parts of the makeshift bazaar.  I often wondered how the entire enterprise came about, because none of it seemed planned, each stand seemingly building independently off the next one like a house of cards.  The improvised irrigation and cordoning off of each vendor’s space had no rhyme or reason, but it all worked. Looking skyward a patchwork quilt of metal and plastic let in criss cross patterns of sunlight made visible by cigarette smoke and cooked food.  The cries of various animals, chickens, pigs and goats grazing or being slaughtered, mixed in the air with hushed conversations and spirited dealings. The palengke was an organism where function trumped form in constant swirls of village life.

As I headed to the south side of the palengke, I happened by a familiar stand owned by my aunt, Imay.  She was a portly woman with a warm smile and an infectious laugh.  If you made eye contact with her, you would most likely be hustled into her diner and given several warm entrees to feast upon.  Before I could say anything, she noticed me and hurriedly led me to a table.

“Ay, utoy, I haven’t seen you here in a while, are you hungry?” she said energetically, gathering a plate and utensils to my table.

“Um…Tita I’m actually going to taya some numbers for Manong Eddie, so I probably shouldn…”

“Wooow, you are lucky utoy, because I have some very good mitsado today, very fresh, here I’ll get you some,”  Tita Imay had a sort of selective hearing when she was trying to whisk you into her restaurant, before you knew it you had a full meal in your belly, and not a word in edgewise.

“Tita..it’s okay…I’m fine, I’ll be fine,” I said, feigning resistance.

“C’mon everyone gets hungry about now, here,” she said pushing the fresh bowl of mitsado my direction, its color and aroma were all consuming, “So enough ha, I don’t want to hear anything more, kain ka na!”

At that point, you were done.  No wonder she had the most successful kitchen in the palengke.

“MmmmMMM!”

“Thanks Tita,” I said wiping my mouth, “that was really good, but I have to get these numbers to the huweteng before the sun goes down.”

“Ay, okay anak, good at least you won’t be hungry, and tell your tatay I will come by tonight to bring some mitsado okay?”

I turned to leave when Tita Imay grabbed my arm, “Tell your papa to have someone watch his animals tonight, Mang Ido and Danding both found some dead pigs and chickens in they’re yard yesterday,” she had a quiet intensity in her eyes, and I felt her concern.   “Ingat, ok.  Take Care, utoy.”  She let go and quickly hurried back to the kitchen to tend to another customer.

Chapter 2

In the center of the palengke, an improvised hole in the roof created what looked like a large oval patch of sunlight.  Several chairs and benches surrounded the opening to form a shabby sort of stadium.  This makeshift arena was known to many as ang butas, sabongan or simply “the hole” and was the staging ground for many of the barangay’s gambling activities, primarily the barangay-wide cockfights.

That day there were a group of men, gathered in a circle around what seemed to be a long wooden stick.  Two men held each side while the crowd around them jostled for a view, kicking up dust and causing a commotion as they yelled out odds and bets.  I stood on my tiptoes and peered over the group for a better look and saw what seemed to be two spiders running across the stick to meet in the center.  As they locked together in a prickly embrace, a crescendo of energy lit up the crowd.  My view being obscured, and not knowing what to look for, I began to stare at the expressions on the faces of the bettors around me; a collection of wild-eyed gazes fixated on the action suspended from the dowel.  Suddenly, a small roar erupted and saw one of the spiders being wrapped into a webbed ball by the other.  Money was frantically exchanged and several of the men scuffled to the exits with their shoulders dragging behind them while another group took their place for the next match.  Although the life of a common spider seemed trivial in comparison to the savagery found in a typical sabong, the energy of the men surrounding “the hole” gave it a peculiar intensity.

Surveying the chaos of the place, a man sitting quietly in the corner caught my attention .  He held a stack of yellow wager slips between the fingers of his left hand, while the other nursed the long burning ash of a Marlboro.  He seemed indifferent to the whole scene with his red and white mesh baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, the bill sporting a red San Miguel logo.  I stared at him for a moment and watched as the ash of his cigarette crept slowly towards his fingers, the smoke forming a languid veil around his face.  He shook off the ash right before it burned him and took a drag.  He caught my eye and I realized that it was Kuya Carlo, the numbers man.  Mang Eddie had introduced us once at a high school basketball game a month back, and he gave me the customary head flick which signaled that he remembered me.

“Kuya, is there still time for the huweteng!” I yelled, as I weaved my way through the shifting crowd.

“Oh oh, yeah man, halika…come over and let me talk to you a bit,” said Kuya Carlo, gesturing me over with the hand that held the cigarette.

Carlo traded some slips with a few men as I approached, he had a lazy eye that he hid under the bill of his cap, and his yellowing teeth peered out behind a warm but crooked smirk.

“Manong Eddie knows there are no guarantees with the huweteng, even if you are captain of our barangay,” Carlo said as he coughed and spit.  He looked at me and paused for a moment, “Utoy, remember something, fate doesn’t recognize you, it’s up to you to recognize fate.  Sige?”

“So how do you recognize fate?” I said, hiding my confusion by looking away.

“You will recognize it,” Carlo muttered as he plucked the numbers from my hand, “Don’t listen to your head, it will betray you…go on, get out of here, go do something that young people do.”

“Salamat po,” I said.

I was turning the leave when I heard Carlo call out, “Utoy, hold on, can you do me a favor?  Give these slips to Padre Damaso at the Church and don’t talk about it to anyone,” he noticed the surprised look on my face, “Yes, Padre plays the huweteng…he recognizes something too.”

“What’s that?”

“God or Bathala alone cannot fix the hole in the church roof,” his smile widened to reveal a grin, a yellowing slice of the moon.  He handed over the betting slips, “leave it to the Devil to help a little.”


Chapter 3

The town church had been around since the early days of the Spanish era and had retained much of the character and spirit of that time.  Statues of saints and cherubs dotted the facade of the three tower structure.  Layers of paint gave way to large sections of crumbled wall to show the innards of the stubborn edifice.  The old bricks made of jungle mud and brick created a rather elegant tapestry of patterns.  It was foreboding in some sense the look of this structure, but it had a charm to it that was unique to our village.

I stared into the sun admiring the statues that lined the church and probably not paying much attention, when I was knocked to the ground with great force.  Shaking myself off, I got up and noticed a strange girl standing in front of me.  I had not seen or heard her approach, so I was a little disoriented.

“I’m sorry, are you alright?” her concern showed through the furrows in her brow.  She walked forward and shaded my view from the sun when I noticed she had a pleasant face, the kind you could trust instantly, her pupils were deep and engaging.

I tried to get up but a heavy weight suddenly came upon me and my throat clenched up preventing me from speaking.  My face became flush and as I stared at this girl that stood before me, a halo had formed around her silouhette that began to shift and undulate like a hazy molten bouquet of sunflowers.  The intensity of her eyes grew, as if they had locked onto me, my heart raced and the pace of my breath quickened.  For a moment as the light from her corona increased to a blazing tiara, the world grew dim and faded around me blanketing me with an unnatural coolness.  Overwhelmed by these sensations, I began to curl into a fetal position, shielding myself from what was to come.

“Are you okay?” a voice said in the distance.

An invisible force drove through me like a wave.  I blinked a couple of times and realized I was lying on the road facing the church, Father Damaso was there, hand extended.

“Father…what…wha..happened?” my head swiveled around looking for the girl, she was nowhere to be found.

“I don’t know anak, I saw you from the church and thought you might be hurt, you seemed to be shielding yourself from the sun,” the father said with concern.

“Hmm…yes, I don’t know…I should get up now,” I said grabbing Father’s hand and dusting myself off, “I must have been day dreaming.

“Genesis 28:12…he dreamed, and behold a ladder reached to heaven,” fired Father Damaso giving me a reassuring smile, “many have had visions of God within this church, but not many in front of it, let it guide you.”

“I will Father thanks,” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the betting slips, “Carlo wanted me to give these to you.”

“Oh, thanks Anak, yeah it’s just once in a while, especially when we get unexpected things happening like the hole in the church roof.”

“How did that happen, by the way, I didn’t hear about it?”

“Actually it was very recent, a couple of days ago,” he put his hand on my shoulder as we walked towards the church, “there was a loud ticking noise that woke me up that night.

At first I thought that there was a leak inside the church so I got up and grabbed a candle to check it out.  Sometimes the sound of the crickets or a wayward bird in the rafters can really echo in here, but this was different, it was really sharp and sounded like it was coming from above.  I didn’t see anything peculiar in the main part of the church, but as I walked to the vestibule to look out the front door, a loud crashing noise came from near the altar, accompanied by a heavy flapping sound, like a big gigantic bird.”

“Wow? What did you think it was? Did you see anything?” I said intrigued.

“Well, after getting over my shock, you can imagine I said a few hail marys at that hour, headed back into the church to find a section of the roof had caved in.  Pieces of it were spread all around the altar area,” Father spread his arms and pointed out the areas where the debris had fallen, “Strange thing was that I didn’t see one feather amongst the damage, but I could have sworn that there was a bird of some size, at least it sounded like it.”

“Strange, but I’m sure the roof had been weak already, no?”

“I’d never noticed any problems before but, yes, you’re right it probably was time to get the roof fixed, it hasn’t been attended to for quite a while.  It did make for an interesting night though, ha ha, you should have seen me saying my prayers, I was a mess.  Last thing I needed was some kind of demonio visiting me in the middle of the night.”

“Demonio?” I said kneeling before the altar, “those don’t exist do they?”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Anak, if you believe in God and the power of our Jesus Christ, one must also accept the existence of other powerful beings.  Just as there are two sides to every conflict, good will always be balanced by evil.”

“What about those spider fights that they have over at the palengke, one spider is not necessarily good or evil when they win though, are they Father?”

“Spiders are not made in the image of God but they do possess some of the eternal truths, one of which is that life and death are governed by the hand of fate.  Only God knows our fate, but if it is meant for you and it is your time, you shall serve yourself well to trust in His grace.  All we can control in this life is what we how we live it, good or evil, it is a choice, Anak.”