The old woman walked slowly on the wide wooden plank, careful not to fall into the murky waters. The air around her smelled putrid, but the shanty row on the other side of the creek teemed with people, and children played giddily, running around hollering. The old woman felt happy that she, at last, had finally found a home.
An impatient teenager decided to walk halfway through the plank and stretched out a hand. “Ay, Lolaaa! It’s gonna take you a hundred years to cross the creek!” The old woman looked up, and smiled feebly as she grasped the adolescent’s hand. Alighting on the damp soil, the old woman turned around to thank the teenager, and was amused to find that the teenager she had thought a girl was actually a boy.
The teenager stood arms akimbo on the plank and called out a group of young men guitar nearby strumming a. “Hey, boylets!…don’t forget the meeting tonight…or else your handsome faces might end up on the streets!” Two pungent-smelling children whizzed by. “Sheesh! You two take a bath!” he shrieked as he crinkled his nose. Jolina tousled his shoulder-length hair, dyed copper brown, as he half-danced along the makeshift bridge that connected the shanty row to a long alley leading to the big street of the city. At the back of his pink shirt was the picture of a handsome teenaged movie star.
The old woman felt lost in the traffic of human bodies around her.
Children ran about, bickering and jostling with one another. Women strode to and fro, umbrellas pressed under their arms. A group of men were bent over a board game. Radio music played from somewhere, drowning out the croaking of a rusty pozo. A rhythmic slush of pouring water, and a young girl’s song rose into a yell.
The old woman looked around her. The place branched out into a maze of several tiny pathways. A stray dog barked at her, and the old woman picked up a stone to drive it away. An old man with sullen eyes watched her from the door of a shack.
She decided to enter a narrow alley near where some women were picking lice from young girls’ heads. She parted the laundry hanging on wires that ran crisscross along the alley, and carefully stepped over water puddles on her path.
She came to a half-finished shack where two men were sawing wood. They stepped out for some snacks, and the old woman entered and settled on a bench. The two men were surprised to find the old woman camped inside the shack when they returned. She sat gently rubbing her tired legs propped up along the bench, a transparent plastic sheet and a few ragged clothes spread carelessly on her lap.
“’La…you can’t stay here!” One of the men coaxed her to leave, but the old woman only smiled and pulled out, with trembling hands, a tin cup from her faded bag. The man stepped outside the shack and shouted at a waif. “Oy! Call your Aunt Loleng, tell her she has another visitor!”
A flabby, dark-skinned woman, wearing bright red shorts, came wobbling on uneven legs. A wide cloth band held back her frizzy hair. “Ay, another vagabond! Tsk-tsk…these old people keep popping up like weeds.”
Loleng brought her pimply face up close the old woman’s. “Where you from, ‘La?” The old woman flashed a toothless smile. “Tsk-tsk-tsk…times are really bad…” Loleng muttered as she folded the plastic sheet and quickly gathered the old woman’s things.
“We can finish this hall in three days if they don’t tear it down tomorrow,” one of the men spoke to Loleng as he dug out nails from a faded cloth bag.
“Ay, Kardo…don’t let them then!” Loleng answered as she walked toward the shack’s entrance. “Jolliinaa!!! Where could that pest of a boy be?” She ordered a group of waifs to look for her son before returning to where the old woman sat. “Come, ‘La…you can’t stay here. We’ll have a meeting here tonight.” She stuffed the old woman’s belongings into the bag, and led her by the hand.
They stopped before a small store. “’Mare, spare some biscuits for our guest, huh?” she asked a woman tending the store.
“Another vagabond? Where did you find her?” the woman reached for a small packet of biscuits.
“Ay! at the daycare center that Kardo and his brother are building. I hope the social worker arrives today. I think this old woman’s…!” Loleng clucked and drew circles on her temples with a finger.
The old woman held the biscuit to her lips with a trembling hand. She bit into the biscuit and smiled when the sweet taste filled her mouth.
“I hope I don’t end up on the streets like you,” Loleng uttered, shaking her head.
“Mamaaa! Mamushka!” Jolina called out from behind Loleng.
Loleng turned around, and frowned upon seeing her son. “Cavorting with boys again, eh?! If your Papa were alive, he’d crush your balls to make you a man!”
“Mamushka…! “Jolina sulked at his mother’s remark. “I’ve been reminding people about the meeting…didn’t you ask me to?” He tossed his hair with a swagger. “I also bought some strings for the sampaguita.”
Loleng shoved the old woman’s things into his son’s hands. “There! Bring this old woman to the empty shack by the firewall!”
Jolina smirked and looked at the old woman from head to foot. “I knew it,” he uttered and took the old woman’s hand.
They reached the far end of the neighborhood where a shack stood next to an old firewall. “Dear Jesus, I hope this shack doesn’t fall down on you, ‘La…” Jolina turned apprehensive as she helped the old woman climb the low stairs. “Slowly, slowly…Papa God…have mercy…don’t bury her here…!”
Loleng arrived and stood behind her son as she talked loudly to the old woman. “’La, you stay here tonight. See that small cot? You can sleep there, huh, we’ll scrape for some food for you.”
“Mamush…what if they tear our house down tomorrow?”
“Hah! I’ll slit their throats before they rip any of these shacks apart. I worked in a slaughterhouse before, didn’t I?” Loleng motioned with a quick hand to her neck. “Krrik!” and laughed out loud as she turned back and walked away. Jolina grinned and went after his mother, needling her for some money for candies.
The old woman sat on the wooden cot. The Santo Niño gazed at her from the wall with such compassion in its eyes that the old woman felt teary-eyed. She gazed back reverently at the image, relieved that the Child God had finally taken her into His grace. She closed her eyes and began to pray. Her memory drifted back to the days before tragedy drove her into the streets. Poor Cecilia—watching helplessly as that dreadful disease wasted her husband away! Oh, merciful God! What misfortune had you allowed on that poor woman? Why let a good man suffer the torment of a lingering disease whose cure, as the good doctor had said, was not yet available to mankind?
The old woman mumbled prayers. In her mind was the image of a man struggling with his last breath.
He looked just like an emaciated little boy curled up on his cot. His eyes fixed on her as he gasped for air, his hand gripping hers. No tears fell from her eyes when he finally stopped breathing. Her mind turned blank, exhausted from months of caring alone for her sick husband. There was no money left, too. What more decent thing was there for her to do? She combed his hair and put a pair of socks on his feet to keep him from turning cold.
The landlady who came to collect rent the next day was horrified to find the old woman sitting alone beside her pallid husband, a fly straddling the dried-up drool around his mouth.
The old woman started to wander on the streets, hoping to reach the place she had left many years ago. She wanted to tell her parents that life had not always been good, but her husband Berto often had work as a carpenter.
She learned to scavenge for food, and survived on the momentary kindness of strangers. She became a fixture in street sheds when the sun was too hot, or at church doors when storms struck. Memories of her younger days often came to her, and she would spend hours talking to no one in particular, in and out of this world, until constant hunger eventually caused her to forget even her own name.
The smell of burning leaves wafted in the air. Oh, but that disgusting devil!…that demon! His mouth tasted like mud! I should’ve bit his ear off! Father! Father! Get this devil off me, he is so heavy!
The old woman raised her arms. In her mind, she was pounding the soldier’s back with her bread basket. Her father’s angry face as he struck the soldier with a jungle knife, hovered above her. A group of Japanese soldiers came rushing, firing their guns, and the knife fell from her father’s hand. Her mother let out an agonizing scream. A hand – Berto! – pulled her away, saving her from a bullet. They fled, Cecilia stumbling often, the serenity of her life lost forever to the madness that had descended on their land.
They came to a hut in the forest. She remembers the pull of blunt scissors when Berto’s grandfather cropped her long and wavy hair. Berto put a shirt on her, and helped her wear a pair of trousers. She watched as Berto slipped on a long housedress and tied a bandanna around his head. He tied a small pillow around his waist beneath the dress, which lent him the look of a pregnant woman. The old man unlocked a small wooden box, and handed Berto the money he had stashed inside it. Berto’s uncle then pulled out an amulet of the Santo Niño and put it around her neck, weeping as he blessed and kissed them both on the head.
They mounted a horse-drawn cart. The old man drove as she and Berto sat quietly together, Berto feigning pain in his belly in the presence of patrolling soldiers. But, Lord Jesus! Why are the ricefields burning? Dead animals! Mothers, children, old people with their belongings – where are they going? And demons! Demons everywhere! But, oh, Jesus, what horror! “Turn away, turn away!” Berto warned her, but too late. She saw it anyway-an amputated hand still clinging to the wire fence of an abandoned blockade.
The old woman pulled out a rosary from her bag and laid down on the cot. She felt a bit cold, and covered her legs with the sheet of plastic. She fell back into prayer, and soon felt drowsy.
IT BEGAN TO DRIZZLE just as Jolina reached the crowded shack where the meeting was being held. He wiggled his way in, pleading “Let the queen in…let the queen in…” A group of young boys snickered.
Loleng was near the center of the group seated in a circle. She was presiding over the neighborhood meeting, and cast a glance at Jolina as her son squeezed himself onto a bench across her. She noticed the strands of sampaguita in his hands as he wiped the drizzle off his hair. Jolina sulked as he saw her mother staring at the stringed flowers, explaining with silent gestures that he had to rush home for the meeting. Loleng turned to the woman who was seated beside her son. “B-b-ut they didn’t e-e-ven s-serve notice…h-how c-c-can they just t-tear our houses d-down ?” The woman stuttered.
An infant began to wail, prompting its young mother, seated beside Loleng, to hum and cradle it in her arms. The child turned quiet as it sucked hungrily on its mother’s breasts.
“Hmph, it’s against the law, but they do it because they act for the rich,” an old man leaning against the door frame, countered.
“What did the Mayor say? Isn’t he going to help us?” the woman with the infant asked.
A murmur of voices, and some began to talk among themselves.
“He just keeps on promising,” a young man squatting on the damp ground replied impatiently as he let out a smoke from his cigarette.
“Let’s plead for more time,” someone suggested.
Another woman rose from her seat, and argued that it was better to put up a good fight.
“Ah, better keep our heads cool!” an old man, standing behind Jolina, spoke gently. Voices rose as raindrops pattered on the shack’s tin roof.
“Ok, ok. We’ll do everything to stop them from driving us away,” Loleng finally intervened. “Meantime, the demolition team will be here tomorrow, so we better be prepared…” Her mien became serious.
Someone suggested that they begin discussing their defense plan, and Loleng nodded. The rain fell harder, and some of the women with little children excused themselves, using plastic sheets to protect themselves and their toddlers from the rain. Men who stood outside scampered away. Those who remained inside the shack now and then looked up at the ceiling, anxious about the rain.
The noise of the rain on the tin roof drowned their voices, and Loleng had to cut the meeting short when only a handful remained inside the shack. Jolina rose and tottered toward his mother, complaining of hunger. Loleng urged his son instead, with a slap on his bottom, to hurry home.
THE OLD WOMAN AWOKE the next morning to water drops tapping on the plastic sheet she had covered herself with. She had slept through the night, oblivious of the bad weather.
She struggled to get up. Worry dawned on her face as she surveyed the damp floor of the shanty. Even the photograph of the Santo Niño on the wall was not spared—a drop of water streaked its face, and the old woman concluded that it was a tear from the Child God’s eyes. Forgive this old and useless woman, oh, Lord—she pleaded with a mea culpa to her breast, she failed to save you from the rain!
“’LaaAA…LO-la!” a voice melodiously called from outside. The old woman stared as two hands carefully pushed aside the cardboard door of the shack. “Ay! these steps are cold!” Jolina drew back from the makeshift stairs.
He leaned forward and placed a cup of hot water and two small pieces of bread wrapped in brown paper on the floor. “You must be famished by now. Ay! The the rain was so hard last night! And the wind! — wuuuhhhh — for a moment I thought our house was going to fly!” Jolina gestured with dainty fingers in the air. “No coffee today, ‘La…no money…my sampaguita didn’t sell well last night.” He touched the damp floor. “I’ll be back with a rag.”
The old woman dipped the bread into the hot water and smiled as she chewed the bread. But Mother’s bread was still much better, and the thought of soaking ground rice in freshly-squeezed carabao’s milk came back to her. She remembered the slivers that sometimes pierced her fingers as she shoved wood into the fire, but she would always forget about the pain as soon as the smell of rice cake rose from the stone oven, mixing with the scent of fresh leaves in the air. Her mother would remove the large tray from the fire, and they both would taste a piece each before placing the warm “treasures,” as her mother called them, into a basket. Cecilia would then peddle the bread around the neighborhood in the bright morning sun, often returning home with her empty basket, before noon.
Jolina returned, a rag in hand. “Ay, lola! the demons will be coming anytime now…the men are guarding the wooden plank…they will yank it off if the demons attempt to cross the creek.”
The old woman looked askance at Jolina. Her lips began to tremble. Demons?…oh, Lord, what trials you put my poor soul through! She slowly got up and faced the Santo Niño, whining and repeatedly making the sign of the cross as she mumbled her protestations.
Thunder rumbled across the sky, and Jolina anxiously stepped back. “Ay! Rain again! They will not come! I hope they will not come here today!!” Jolina gleefully clapped his hands as he surveyed the overcast skies.
“Demons!…Demons!!!” A male voice boomed loud from the distance.
Jolina turned around. Realizing that the shouts were from the men guarding the wooden plank, he shrieked and ran, calling out the names of his neighbors, banging on the walls of shacks he passed on his way. Women scurried out of their shanties, some carrying toddlers in their arms, others holding ladles, umbrellas, wooden rods. Old, feeble women stood guard by the entrances to their shacks; nervous little children, left unattended, clung to doors. Several dogs barked simultaneously, some following at the heels of their master.
When Jolina arrived, the men had already lifted one end of the wooden plank, preventing the fidgety group of police and hammer-wielding men across the creek from barging into the neighborhood. Loleng and other women begged for more time, straining to be heard by the intruders. A policeman hollered back about the land being owned by someone else, demanding that they leave, but the men shouted back, swearing to defend their homes with their lives.
“Move away or we’ll shoot!” a policeman warned.
“Just try!” an irate woman shot back.
The policeman drew a gun from his waist, prompting some men to line up rusty iron sheets at the end of the wooden plank to bar the policemen’s entry. Behind them, their wives linked arms, screaming invectives at the policemen.
A shot suddenly rang out, jolting the men who were behind the iron sheets. The policemen charged on the plank, firing several shots in the air as the men with hammers tailed them, dispersing the barricade.
The iron sheets fell to the ground. The women stood their ground, hollering, throwing the weight of their bodies against the charging policemen who shoved them down the mud. The hammer-wielding men started pounding at some shacks. Rocks rained on the charging demolition team, slowing down the hammer-wielding men’s work who were left with no choice but to take cover. The women charged and tried to grab the hammers, and the policemen were taken aback by the onrush of women determined to kill and die.
Jolina rushed to aid his mother who was wrestling with a man for his hammer. The teenager pounced with his fist on the man’s head as Loleng held the man’s arm. The man cursed Jolina, and swung with his hammer to strike at the teenager’s head, but Loleng quickly ducked, and pulled the man’s leg, causing them both to fall on the ground as a thunderbolt struck in the sky.
Rain suddenly poured, and the ground turned into a slippery mush. Jolina, enraged at the sight of his mother down on the ground, plunged at the man with all his strength, distracting the man. Loleng quickly grabbed the hammer away, and threw it into the waters. The man pulled away and ran onto the plank into the safety of the alley.
The policemen took shelter under the eaves of shacks, their guns still aimed at the men now slowly advancing behind the iron sheets that caused such loud noise, that made it hard for the police officer to bark out orders.
“Demon!” a rather shrill voice rang out amidst the noise. Loleng turned to where the voice came from and saw the old woman thrusting a photograph of the Santo Nino, now wrapped in plastic, against police officer’s face. The old woman had fashioned a raincoat out of her transparent sheet, clipped at the chest by a wooden clothespin.
The rain fell harder and slopping sounds rose from the creek. The police officer, casting worried glances at the rising waters, pushed the old woman away, and hollered out an order for his companions to retreat. His companions ran back along the plank.
Jolina rose, hooting and clapping. The residents, though soaked in mud and shivering in the rain, erupted into cheers when the last of the intruders clumsily ran back along the now slippery plank.
Jolina helped his mother get up. They both laughed seeing the old woman standing by the creek, yelling, her frail voice breaking, at the retreating policemen.
The old woman turned around, flashing her wide, toothless smile. Loleng glanced worriedly at the creek, and nudged Jolina to fetch the old woman, who was now making several signs of the cross and blowing kisses at the photo of her beloved Santo Niño, as she held it aloft in the rain.