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Where the Sun Was

The rains have been pouring for more than seven years now.

The clouds have always been dark. I can only remember of how much I surveyed the blue skies before the rains started. It feels like detaching a splinter—just to remember what the world has looked like seven years ago. A memory only rekindled when I take out a certain small box from the closet, where printed photographs in color remind me of the Manila I grew up in.

She caresses my long hair—she always knew when I’d take those photographs out—and whispers something inaudible in my ear. On the bedside table, she places a cup of the same jasmine tea we have drunk for the past seven years, and presses her nose on my temple. On days off, we would walk around the perimeter of the walls, and watch the broken (some filled with cement) gates, the puertas, where people then could enter and exit the Walled City whenever they pleased.

Everybody else just calls her The Photographer, but to me she is still Christine, a name as sweet as she has always been. She has not spoken a full word ever since the rains have poured—as if a haunting spell bound her into a vow of silence. She talks to me, in whispers I could barely comprehend. Some days I could not understand her mumbling or what she meant, but most days when she just leans in close to me, I could already hear what she wants to say—and I nod even before a sound comes.

I put on my long raincoat and open my black umbrella.

Christine does the same. She looks as beautiful as ever, her long jet black hair let down like always, never tied, clipped, or bunned unlike my unkempt long curls. On her neck hangs her old Olympus camera. Just before opening the door outside, she opens the back cover and yanks a roll of film, pulling it to one of the spools. I remember how she told me once of not having to worry of having it exposed because the light has always been virtually absent.

***

“I want to leave.” I can hear my voice shaking, trying its best to assert yet the bulwark shakes.

Jay nods. As usual, his demeanor guises as if he encounters the same sentiments over and over. He never wears anything that is not black—from his button-downs and coat to his slacks and boots. He would stride in his house, the Casa Libraria, as the heels of his shoes hit the floor. He adjusts the heavily-rimmed black glasses that meekly sit atop his nose bridge.

“Dear, Writer. Have you forgotten what the world has become?” Jay always has a smile etched, but for a moment I catch a crease on his lips.

Everybody in the Walled City calls me The Writer—an allegation of what I brought in when I was rescued into the City just before the floods immersed Manila.

I was the last person brought in into the shelter they then started to call New Intramuros. The City has proved its fortification against the floods that ravaged,followed by the strong bouts of the endless rain. When Manila could no longer cope with mere shanty emigration and skyway train technology, the Intramuros Administration acted independently to be the shelter and the embankment of those who could afford the privilege of surviving the floods.

Until now, the Sleeping Men, who, quite literally are all men, have been sleeping—just like astronauts in space, ordained to wake up when the sun rises again. And the women are the Builders—each day they would rotate in shifts: guard the cemented puertasand fortify the Walls in steel. In the middle of the City however, a certain set of Builders have been, for five years now, building a tower that they dreamt would reach above the clouds hoping they could see the sun again.

The rest of us are not of those who availed but merely snuck inside the Walls or were accidentally found at the gates when the waves and floods were chasing us. Jay says we do not deserve names (and how we should forget about them), but he gave us titles and jobs and empty houses, but not Sleep. Never ever the good ol’ Sleep.

Jay, how everybody calls him and how he wants to be addressed, says that in time, the rains will set and sleep will come for everybody. A Builder once gossiped that Jay never slept unlike the Sleeping Men, even if he could and even if he has to. He is, according to her, the greatest and most compassionate IA President. Though I stood there a moment and thought hard how there has been no president other than Jay in the last seven years of the rain.

***

“There is nothing to write anymore, Jay.”

“But you are The Writer, huh? How come?”

I am not able to answer him at that moment. I feel a cold jolt passing through my spine when he reminds me of who I am. Or possibly, how Jay told me of who I should be seven years ago.

I came knocking in the gates back then when the light raindrops struck like heavy needles from a sudden downpour. A lady had come up to me with a handwritten note of how she was mute and made a living of selling pens. I bought one from her.

I walked alongside the bay then, watching the kids play tag and the vendors sing their sales. At the same time, I was waiting for my date—though he never came up.Or maybe he was letting a little time to show me what kind of man he was if we would become a couple in the future—the future immediately cut off by a light rain and the siren from the Walled City. I heard a few armed men barricading the gates and pushing together blocks of cement to close them. In an instant, I ran inside.

***

“Do you remember what you told me? Whenyou came in unannounced at the last moment the gate closed?” Jay stands from behind his desk and scrambles from one of his drawers an envelope where the label made clear of whose file it is. The brown envelope has a single paper, with a few handwritten notes.

“I asked you where your receipts were. Who you were. You simply told me, ‘I’m a writer’ as you held that calendar pen in front of my face.” Jay flashes a smile with his teeth. “I knew you lied. I was laughing behind that loud blaring siren.”

I remember so clearly. I continue the remembrance, “And you told me, dear writer, in here you won’t sleep even if the sun has gone.”

***

For the past seven years, I wrote and it rained. I wrote anything—from observations, notes, and random stories from the Builders. I wrote about how much were left of the supplies Jay had given us, the walls when they were not as thick as they are now, and even when the first foundation of the tower was laid. At times, I would write about my life inside the house and the Walls, about Christine, and the sadness of the rain.

The first week the rains poured I left the papers at Jay’s desk. But on the same night he came in his black raincoat and knocked on my door to leave the papers at the porch with a note that I should keep writing and keep the papers for myself for now. There was no clear instruction but to write for the years that have passed.

***

On the second day the rain had started pouring, Jay brought me inside the Casa Libraria—a home in which an old museum once was, the walls and floors reminiscent of medieval courts. Jay always sat alone in his study—like a throne—reading pages of antique hardbacks.

A few moments of silence lingered as he read a few lines and flipped the delicate pages prudently, with the remarkable ability of a reading veteran. I gasped when he threw the book in the embers of his fireplace. My mouth was agape in surprise as the cinder welcomed and scalded the paper. Then, the pages pleated and reduced to ashes. Jay did not spare a glance to even look at the tragedy of the blaze, but from my periphery I noticed how his eyes had scrutinized every bit of my expression.

“Either our flames destroy these,” he spread his arms. “Or the floods will.”

***

I finish the last pieces I knew I had to write. Pieces I had not been comfortable writing because they are pieces I cannot answer from staying inside New Intramuros. I ask, When will the sun shine?When will the Sleeping Men wake up? When will the Builders be able to rest?What is outside the walls?

I write the last pieces, with as much scrupulousness and introspection that I allowed the questionsbe the title of the pieces. Those last pieces I hand over to Christine, which she glances at the titles but hands me the last bundle of paper,What is outside the walls?

She candidly takes a photo of me looking at that bundle of paper. I never got to see that shot developed but like a mirror I knew that the tears have flocked by my eyes on that photograph.

I put on my long raincoat and open my black umbrella. G

Miguel Carlos Lazarte

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