Marya Ignacio weaves her hair with her fingers watching as the curls separate adhesively from her sweat-dripped forehead. They have been on the hillside for more than four hours now—the days just seem to grow longer every day. As noon strikes, Marya and her Papa retreat under the shade of the largest banana tree which they have just lodged in yesterday.
“Here,” Papa hands her a knotted plastic bag from his pocket while they rest their back on the tree. “Pansithabhab, your favorite.”
Her Papa has told her that come the time, he will make them a house of concrete. Marya holds onto his Papa’s promises, he tells her that the house won’t shake anymore when that time comes. “The floor won’t be sandy. It will be cold… and shiny… and smooth that you can slide on it as much as you want.”
For more than half a century, the Ignacios have tilled the hectares of land in the town of Sara. The god of time has served witness to the hands of thousands of farmers who toiled the acreage over the years. Rough hands have marked the territory over long rice fields from the unseen land to another horizon’s walk to the edge.
It was a cold Monday on summer encumbered by the early morning levy of every farmer as Papa, along with the neighbors and kin, started a day’s work ahead of the sunrise.
Marya woke up to her cat Itim finding a good spot to sleep on her back. She wafted the smell of sour broth whiffing from the palayok being heated outside the house. She took a sip of Mama’s salabat, perfect as always. And thepaksiw she sipped on, was also stowed away in an empty ice bag and tucked into her backpack for school.
She would always walk along the stretch of the then-rice fields, now tossed over from the dry season and grazing cattle fed on the remains. However today, Charity, a classmate from a farther barangay, let her ride along their motorcycle to the publicelementary school they were attending. Then theschool day would go the same; writing notes from blackboard to notebook, a quiz or two on history and English literature even the teacher barely understands, and waxing the floor with the lampaso – the Monday’s cleaner schedule.
She would then take a fifteen-minute walk to the bayan arriving at the peak of noon along with the other children. Kwek-kwek, isaw, and paper-bagged buttered or cheese popcorn closed with sago’tgulaman top cupped with thinly shaved ice.
Many kids would dread Mondays because of the classes, but Marya looks forward to the afternoon of it every week. Papa would arrive always half an hour after she does. The week before they just walked across the different stores in the bayan; groceries, hardware, general merchandise, and even the small ones. And the week before that, they went to the barangay halls and the small offices near the plaza. Marya would help Papa carry the bunch of bananas. Sometimes hung by a straw, but most of the times she lugged several hands all at once.
Today, they were to go to the church to sell bananas. Papa knew it wasn’t much, but it’s all we have. She tried to understand Papa most of the times, but the hardships he find hard don’t matter that much. “We don’t go hungry, we have a simple home, and the land will never betray us,” Papa would tell Marya and Mama. “And we’re still together.”
It’s all that mattered.
The Church of Santa Rita looks different from the appearance of other churches they teach at school. Unlike the town church at the plaza, the Church of Santa Rita was at the highest peak near the bayan in Sara. The church seemed a church that was never renovated. The stone walls are heavy, thick, and brimmed with black antiquity. The stone cross above the church would sometimes seem to move when the mirage of the noon heat dances. White benches stick a sore eye outside the ageless church where kids would bepeddlingsampaguita and the vendors would sell pan de sal and putobumbong on December misa de gallo’s.
Outside the onyx church, an eerie pavilion stands out where a life-size statue of Sta. Rita de Cascia stands behind a clear-glass enclosure all clad in her black nun robes, holding a large crucifix on one hand and a skull on the other. Her eyes always seem grief-striken and deep, but still manages to look solemn in her gaze.
Marya and Papa entered the huge wooden door of the church where a breeze of the cold air greeted the two. The smell of the church was distinct, of the scent of candlewax and pews. The stained glass displayed beautifully of a baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary while an angel watches from the sidelines – all in bright red, blue, green, and yellow replication.
“Marya!” Charity greeted her classmate, approaching her with a pat on her shoulder. “I’m here with my dad, too.”
Marya blushed. She wasn’t used to being seen by her classmates carrying a bunch of bananas. She asked Papa if she could put it down for the moment. He nodded.
“Hey Cha! W-Where’s your dad?” Marya peered around the almost empty basilica looking for her father.
“I see.” Marya smiled.
“Good afternoon, Tito.” Charity reached for Papa’s hand and gave a mano.
“Good afternoon, ‘nak.”
Papa genuflected toward the altar before laying down the bananas. They sat on a pew behind where Charity and her father’s bags were at. Papa kneeled, took a sign of the cross,then closed his eyes praying silently. Marya remained seated, and she thought of the day’s trouble and what Mama will be preparing for dinner when they get home.
When Papa took to sit, she found Charity’s father peering at Papa.
“Uy, opiser! Good afternoon ho.”
“Ignacio, am I right?”
“Oho, ser. You are the MARO ho, ser?” Papa smiled shyly.
Charity’s father peered intently at the bananas.
“Yes.” He smiled. “My daughter and I are going. Hope the harvest is good. We’ll see each other around Ignacio, yes?”
Papa smiled in reply.
When the two left, Papa stood up and asked Marya to wait a bit. He entered the confessional stall, and the hint of the closing of the door left Marya alone at the church.
Minutes passed. Marya was a patient kid. An hour passed. As soon as she worried, she went near the stall.
“Forgive them, Father… for they have sinned…”
“Forgive them, Father… for they have sinned…”
“Forgive them, Father… for they have sinned…”
A click. The stall door opened.
“Papa, are you okay?”
“Yes, ‘nak. Let’s go home.” Papa smiled.
They walked home together, rather late than usual. The sunset was bidding a darker night tonight. The last crimson rays illuminated the dry rice fields.
“You still remember?” Papa put the unsold bananas down and outstretched his hands from the farthest reach of the land at the horizon over to the direction their house was at. “When these were ours?”
Marya shook her head.
“These were ours. These are ours.”
Dinuguan was for dinner, but there was no meat, just vegetables. Mama said the neighbor had given the blood for free because they had just slaughtered their pig for the fiesta the next Wednesday. It was good. Even traces of meat always tasted good.
That night they fell asleep earlier because of the darkness. Marya woke up at midnight, her teeth were aching. “Ma, Pa?” she shouted. Mama got Marya into their room, mixed water and salt, and went outside to heat up some salabat. It was uncanny, as Marya noticed that Papa was not at the room.
“Ma,” she asked as she returned to treat her ache. “Where’s Papa?”
“’Nak, maybe, maybe he just went out. Got some fresh air, maybe?” She thought for a while as well. “He told me he wasn’t able to sleep.”
The night passed. The next day, his father wasn’t at home, still.
She asked Mama where Papa is, “… maybe helped in the bungkalan with your Tito Marcel.”
“Why hasn’t he gone home?” Mama: “You know it’s far.
“Hope he’s fine.”
The day of the fiesta, Papa was still not home. “Mama, where’s Pa?”
“Maybe helped for fiesta prep.”
“Are you sure?” Mama: “Most likely.”
Fiesta night was always the best night in town. Lechon, pabo, tapangkalabaw—everyone’s specialty. Relatives over relatives inviting neighbors across neighbors even those each barely knew. The night was long; the karaoke were restless, the local fair charmed every kid from school, and the annual pageants were crowded at the plaza.
Marya played with her friends at the fair, played the one-peso festivities and the boys took the risk in the color game, losing one after another. She watched her friends ride the rapid ferris wheel from a distance. As the night grew, parents picked up their children. As Charity’s father went to pick up her classmate, he managed to smile at Marya.
“Enjoying the fiesta, Ignacio? Here, for a few games.” He hands a 100-peso bill.
Marya smiled in reply but just shook her head.
“You definitely are an Ignacio. Good night, iha.”
Marya hoped, and waited at the plaza for her Papa, where he usually picks her up even though she hasn’t seen him since Monday. Mama arrives a few minutes later.
“Where is Papa?” she asked hurriedly.
“Nako. I worry too, ‘nak. But your tiyo told me he saw him enter Santa Rita.”
The two went to the church. Although the door was barred, the parish façade was lit—its onyx grandeur haunts beautifully at that festive night.
Mama knocked at the church door heavily.
Bagg! Baggg! Bagggg!
An hour passed, then two. She waited, shouted. Her Mama praying every time she returns to the church, going back and forth from the plaza proper where Tito Marcel kept watch for the missing father. There was no one around the church, because everybody was enjoying the fiesta finale, venerating Viva Santa Rita!, a final procession from the plaza toward the church where the Ignacios were.
Then midnight came. The bells tolled. The procession march neared.
Bag! Baggg! Bagggg!
The sound of metal was being pulled from behind the doors. Click! Chak! It unlocked.
Papa was crying. His eyes bloodshot. “The land. They took.”
“What are you saying Papa?” Marya hugs her Papa.
“I prayed for the rain.”
“To start taking it back.” Her father ran behind the church where a wide stretch of lands greet the darkness of the fiesta’s new moon.
The bells tolled seven times now. Then eight. She wasn’t able to understand. Her teeth still ached somehow. Then ten.The plaza was seen from above. The procession was in sight.
Papa bowed, mumbling a prayer she cannot understand. Her teeth hurt, her head hurt. The late night breeze then smelled of wet asphalt.