That wall has stood there for as long as I could remember. I don’t know why, but the other people do not seem to be even remotely bothered by his presence. I, on the other hand, am driven to what one might surmise as insanity by that accursed structure of brick.
As a seven-year-old, I was known as having an intellect way ahead of my peers. It was comparable to that of any student in the nearby university. But it was with the greatest misfortune that I was never able to even enter the local public elementary school, being born the son of a beggar and a sampaguita vendor. I grew up in a structure of scrap aluminum rods and a campaign streamer that was a desperate excuse for a house. It was built beside an abandoned factory that, according to my mother, used to manufacture canned goods. It was a small building, but it was locked so we couldn’t squat inside, much to the chagrin of my ambitious parents.
I had, in my early childhood, instead of following my fellow street mice in playing patintero, stood (or more often, sat) outside the gates of the center for learning. I could not describe how insignificant I felt during those times. To this day, I ask myself how an ugly, soot-covered child in rags could even ponder going near a building full of educated and good-looking children of aristocrats. I even speculated that I was, in my early years, afflicted with the philia of submission, or perhaps, in a more psychological sense, of masochism. But regardless of the motives behind my idiotic actions, I nonetheless benefited accidentally. Having spent a lot of time sitting on the stone benches that lined the corridors outside the university, I inadvertently began mingling with the students. They fancied, perhaps out of boredom, to instruct me. They taught me how to read and how to write. They lectured to me about languages (both English and Filipino, one student attempted German, but failed), about literature, about history, about the sciences, about the branches of philosophy and about the various religions. Added to that as an extra was my exposure to the mainstream culture of the youth that, had I been left in my pitiful state of poverty, I would never have even dreamt of learning about. I learned the latest trends from the students, the latest gossip, the latest this and that.
But as I added to my hoard of knowledge, I remained plagued by that domineering brick wall.
Being someone who has been revered by my fellow children and even by the adults for my irresistible combination of extensive knowledge and unprecedented wit and sarcasm, I had, I must admit, developed a rather exalted outlook for myself. I grew to believe that my situation was indeed no different from the Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of China’s Ming Dynasty. I thought of myself as of humble birth, but of great destiny. This was further stressed by the fact that nobody I knew ever undermined me or contradicted the way I viewed myself.
It is, thus, a spit on my face that that wall exists.
Behind the factory, directly in front of our ‘house’, is a vacant lot. It was quite a spacious area, where the street children played taya and flew their kites. It was covered with a wild mixture of carabao and bermuda grass, which made it ideal for running around or rolling on the ground. But the most striking feature of the area was that wall. It was a 17-foot brick structure that stood solitarily at the center of the lot. When I asked my father what it was for, he explained that the lot was, at some point, planned to be the location of a mall. But the project was somehow postponed during the early stages of the construction and eventually cancelled. Originally, he explained, there were four walls, but, by the unusual whim of Time, the other three collapsed and only one stood unblemished.
The people squatting in the area never really gave much attention to the wall. But I was haunted by the presence of that looming pillar. It developed its own personality, and I subconsciously began to refer to it as ‘he.’ It was as if he was reminding me that I was born as a street rat and suggesting with his arrogant height that I shall die as a street rat.
I remember a dream where I stood at the foot of the accursed structure. He looked down on me with a look of utter disgust, as if I were some filthy weed whose growth was and never will be wanted. He gave me a smirk, which made me feel that I had no right to smile, being someone whose complaints will never even reach the edge of anybody’s interest. I tried in vain to shake his foundation, to topple him, to show to him that I was not inferior to him, but he did not budge one bit. I tried to prove to him that I was, after all, a thinking being, and that I was not just some speck in the mosaic that is the cosmos. But the wall’s silence undermined me even more. I kicked him, but he would not move. I punched him, but he would not move. I lunged towards him, still he did not move. I continued hammering him with my knuckles, crying at the unconquerable obstacle. Soon, my fists started bleeding, but he still did not move.
One day, I was given the opportunity by fickle Providence to prove my worth. A student of the university recommended me to his father as a worthy recipient of his scholarship. At the age of twelve, I parted from my parents and was taken to a dormitory high school. I was, by the good will of my benefactor, transformed from a miserable creature into a dignified human being. I was clothed with expensive attire. My hair was fixed by a hairstylist, and I was advised to grow it long. I was bathed, and the soap I used soon made my skin lighter. Indeed, I was like an ugly caterpillar that transformed into an elegant butterfly.
Of course I excelled academically. Teachers and classmates alike could not believe that I had never undergone elementary education. Somehow, I also became quite popular with girls, though this is something I never even conceived to be remotely possible. I grew popular throughout the school, but I never really overcame the memory of that domineering wall.
As the days passed, my hatred for myself grew less and less. But I loathed that wall even more. He still appeared in my dreams, reminding me that I was just an insignificant individual among the billions of people in this world. The earth is but a floating piece of dust in its solar system, which is itself a group of floating particles of dust in the galaxy, and the galaxy itself naught but a speck in the spectrum of galaxies in its cluster, which in turn is just among the millions of clusters in a super cluster. And who knows how many super clusters there are in the universe?
After graduating from college, I was employed by my benefactor and soon became one of his company’s largest stockholders. I was able to build a real house for myself and one for my parents. One might surmise that my psyche should have been finally at peace with that looming figure. But that wall never gave me any rest! I resolved that he must fall by my hands. I cannot rest until he falls.
It was summer. The three o’clock sky was clear and cloudless. After almost a score and four years of not seeing it, I walked by the slum in which I grew up. I reached the factory near which I once lived. There, holding my sledgehammer, I walked through the gap between the factory and the adjacent building. There before me stood, at the center of the vacant lot, that accursed wall.
Suddenly, my dream became a horrible reality. I became small, as if I were an ant. The wall grew. He was gargantuan, like some looming mountain that looked down on me. He kept growing, and I kept shrinking. I was once again dragged down, bitterly reminded by that wall that I was, despite my success in life, nothing but a street rat.
As I lay on the ground, beneath the menacing glare of that wall, shaking in terror and angst, my trembling hands suddenly felt the sledgehammer that it had dropped a while ago. With all my strength, with all my force, and with all my hatred, I thrust the sledgehammer towards the abhorrent structure. I thrust all my wrath towards my flaws, my insecurities, my inferiorities, and destroyed them, as I did this wall. The foundations of the wall were shaken. They were demolished! I rejoiced in triumph. I have conquered him!
But then, I quickly realized— even though the wall was destroyed, nothing had really changed. I was still born a street rat, I was still nothing but a successful mongrel, and I was still but a speck in the entire cosmos. What difference does it make that I can think? We are born into this world and we make it real with our minds. But then, this mind that sets us apart, this mind that makes us significant, what happens to it when we die? Our mind, like everything in us, is still doomed to decay. In this cosmos, we are still nothing.
I am still nothing.
And then I turned around. The accursed wall, in his last moments, took for himself the last laugh.
Karlo Antonio G. David is an A.B. English student of Ateneo de Davao University.