Raindrops poured and the fragrance of wet grass and mud wafted in the dense air. A thin layer of fog blanketed the cluster of trees and chilled the nights of the distant homes within sitio Bago-Nalum. It was two weeks after the incident that happened at the highway of crossing Bago. Nights were filled with the sound of thunder and flashes of lighting since then. Rumor went around that the family failed to light a candle for the soul of Tata who died in the accident. His body was found with an envelope that bore the mark of the Eagle. Rain had washed away his blood and the morning sun has long dried the concrete. In sitio Bago-Nalum, where the man used to live, a rumor has been making rounds. Amidst the silent persisting downpour, whispers could be heard. Santelmo. The forgotten soul shall haunt.
Berto Dimahunong heard the whispers at Bugak as he was filling four containers of water. In Bugak people fell in line, carrying with them containers to be filled with fresh water, or gathered to do the laundry. Water flowed from the ground, through the years-old pipe, and into the container. The first one in line was Berto. He was a fireman and a dutiful son. He intended to do his chore as quickly as he could, but he could not help overhearing what everyone was talking about. Amidst the patting of fabric and the splashes of feet entering the shallow pool, people were in careless exchanges.
Berto knew the story well. It was his father who died in that incident two weeks ago. The old man had been over-speeding without a helmet on and collided at the crossing with a ten-wheeler truck that came from Bago-Saka. At least, that was how it was staged. The moment they discovered the mark of the Eagle they knew, nothing was an accident. In hushed tones they mentioned the name Fuentes. Fuentes, Fuentes.
Tata was known to be a strong opposition to the Fuentes Holdings. Fuentes was a known name in the Housing industry. They have been planning to build an inland resort and subdivision where the sitio was. Tata stood his ground and fought for the residents who were kicked out of their own lands. Although he did not finish any degree, he was a strong-willed intellectual who had passion for justice. Many believed that this lead to his demise Tata passed away before the ambulance came.
According to the old belief, in such accidents, a candle should be lit on the spot where life escaped the person lest it becomes a lost soul in the form of a fireball. Santelmo—it was called. His mother never cared to light a candle and Berto never understood the need then. Hearing people gossip, he wasn’t sure if they did not recognize him as the son of the man they were talking about or if they just didn’t care.
As he was filling the third container he heard two women who were doing the laundry, amidst the rocks and shallow water, move on to talking about the ongoing invasion in the sitio.
“The Eagle is on our necks.” Loring, a thirty year old woman commented.
“Is there any news about the appeal?” Merna, a twenty-five year old mother of five, asked.
“Not since Tata died.”
“Kahakog. We own these lands. Our families had been here long before they were even born,” Merna lamented.
“We’d never win if that’s the only argument we have. Kinahanglan papel sa papel.”
“Tata was the only one smart enough to fight them with their stupid legalities.”
The two were silent, remembering the loud man who did not back down in the face of influential people. They were sad with what happened, but they could not do anything about it.
“Flordeliza should have lit a candle for her husband,” Loring shook her head.
Berto flinched at the mention of his mother’s name.
“Well, she was never one that went with traditions.”
“Look where that rebellious attitude took her!”
“Well, not as far as it took her husband.”
Merna agreed and shook her head in disappointment for the life of a neighbor she barely exchanged pleasantries with. Berto tuned away from their conversation. He need not hear any more of other people’s comment about their life.
Berto carried the water-filled containers to their home. The house was a simple wooden structure made of nipa and wooden planks. Flordeliza Dimahunong was dressed comfortably in her favorite white daster that went down mid-calf. She was bent down at their backyard, manually cutting down grass when Berto arrived home. He put down the containers by the door and went to offer his help.
“I can do it, dong,” she shook her head.
She gathered the weed she managed to uproot, swept the blades of grass in a single pile, and took out a box of match from her daster’s pocket. Berto watched as she lit the matchstick, letting the tiny fire grow bigger and consumed the pile. The flame danced where the wind blew. Thick gray smoke rose and reached Berto’s direction. He fanned himself, coughing a little, before stepping aside to avoid the smoke.
“Ma, do you have any news on the negotiations with Fuentes Holdings?” he started.
“Wala. It’s the talk in Bugak,” he shrugged.
He turned and started walking back to their front door where he left the containers. He could feel his mother’s gaze weighing on his back. As he bent down to pick up the containers he heard his mother say, “Ayaw na na hisguti.”
Flordeliza had been hostile towards the issue. Previous supporters of her husband came to their home to try and talk her into leading the appeal in place of Tata, but she vehemently refused. It cost the life of her husband—she did not want to die or to lose her son over the same stupid issue of land ownership. She had stuffed all of Tata’s documents that concerned his opposition with the Fuentes Holdings in a box, inside their old cabinet, set under piles and piles of clothes. Not once did she open that box. It was a reminder of her husband’s untimely death.
She had tried to throw it out, but whenever she remembered her late husband pouring his all into gathering all those documents, she could not bring herself to do it. It was what made him feel alive. For Florderliza, it made her feel that Tata was alive—if only in her memory. Berto was silent as he went inside the house, his back turned from the tears of his mother.
He woke up later that night to the sound of his mother leaving. Startled awake, he first saw the altar to his far left. On it was a framed picture of his father. His mother had never been a devoted Catholic, so the altar had been hastily set up to cater his father’s picture frame. He closed his eyes and slowly turned his head to the direction of the faint rustling his mother made. Like the many nights before that, he continued to feign sleep until the last sound of her footsteps was consumed by the night.
It was six in the evening and darkness crept in the sitio. Berto worked at the fire station all week and rarely had the chance to speak with his mother. A small part of him found it uncomfortable to talk to her after their last conversation. It had been that way since the accident happened.
After a week of being away from home, he found himself trudging the familiar uneven path of the sitio. It had been raining a lot recently. The darkness of the night was lit by the ceaseless lightning and the silence was filled with thunder. Berto plucked a leaf of gabi, big enough to cover his head from the rain. It was not anything more than a drizzle, but the lightning and thunder was constant. The flash of light illuminated his path. The ground was muddy and if it weren’t for his boots, his feet would’ve been buried by now.
Berto walked a few meters more, but with every step mud stuck to his boots, weighing him down. It was getting harder and harder to walk. He looked ahead and saw the slope that lead down to Bugak. He had to pass by the slope before arriving at the curve that led to their house. He debated whether or not he should clean his boots down the cold spring or put up with the weight until he got home. He decided to trek down the slope. The water stored at home might not be enough for drinking and washing the dishes if he poured them to the mud coated boots.
In Bugak everything was enveloped in darkness. The only sound that could be heard was the steady stream of water from the pipe that flowed down to the pool of shallow water below it and the soft thump thump of the rain. He stayed still, waiting for any movement. When there was none, he settled on a rock by the edge of the shallow water. He picked up a twig that looked sturdy enough and started taking off the muck.
He was focusing on his left boot when he saw movement across the stream. It was seven o’clock in the evening, a time which was considered to be very late in the sitio. Everybody should have been asleep inside their warm homes. Berto wondered who it could be. He looked up to the road that led out of Bugak across where he was seated. It was where he caught the movement. He usually took that road when he went to get some water. The road led directly to their house. He could not think of anyone else who would use that road this late at night.
It was the fire that Berto saw first. It could be because of his trained eyes that had automatically focused on the flame, or it could be just because it was the first light he saw that rainy evening. The small flame danced. It swayed to a silent rhythm of left and right and morphed back to its shape. It was the shape of a teardrop with layers of dancing flame. He was staring at the small flame of a gas lamp. Shadows danced to the faint light. The shadows inched closer, reaching out to Berto. That was when he saw his mother.
Flordeliza Dimahunong in her old brown daster stood a few meters across her son. She walked like she was in some sort of trance. Her long greying hair swayed with her steps. Berto knew his mother failed to notice his presence. He could’ve called out to her, but he chose to silently hide behind the rock, waiting for whatever business his mother might have at Bugak this late in the evening.
Florderliza sat on the ground beside the shallow water. She removed her slippers and dipped her feet in the cold stream. She closed her eyes and stayed that way for a few minutes that Berto wondered if she had fallen asleep. That was when she opened her eyes and reached behind her. A sound of a plastic bag ruffled resounded amidst the silent trees and steady sound of running water. Flordeliza revealed a big and round white candle and a box of matchsticks. The candle was enclosed in a cylindrical glass with the top open for the candle to be lit.
Berto watched as his mother lit the candle like it was a sacred ritual she had done many times. After lighting the candle, she gingerly placed it in front of her, half of its body submerged in water. She held it in place so it would not be swayed by the ripples. That was when Berto decided to show himself.
Flordeliza looked up, her eyes widened as she the image of her son registered. Then she relaxed.
“Ikaw ra diay.”
“Ngano? Are you expecting someone else?”
Flordeliza shook her head and smiled at her son.
“Nag-unsa ka diri?” he asked her what she was doing there.
“Who would you visit this late in the night and here at Bugak?”
Flordeliza was silent for awhile as she stared at the lit candle in the middle of the cold water. She was still holding on to the glass, the side of her hand lightly touched by the cold water.
Berto did not want to point out the obvious. His father was dead. Instead, he walked to sit beside her. As he did, her fingers tightened around the candle.
“Is he here?”
“Why are you lighting a candle for him?”
“Because I never did when I was supposed to.”
Berto did not know what to say. It was true what the others said that his mother refused to conform to tradition. Tuo lang sa unsa imong nakita. When he was younger, she used to tell Berto to only believe in what he sees. He did not question her advice. It seemed perfectly logical and fair for Berto.
“Do you believe what they say?” he asked.
It took Flordeliza a moment before she answered.
“If it is the only way to see him again.”
Flordeliza had never mentioned such sentiments to Berto. He never witnessed her shed a tear, not even on the day of the accident. Seeing her now, Berto started to wonder if it had been strength or cowardice.
“Is that why you did not light the candle?”
Flordeliza did not reply. Berto knew the answer was yes.
“He’s not here.”
Flordeliza did not reply.
“Why are you out here late at night? It’s chilly.”
“I know, but I wanted to light him a candle every night.”
Her eyes followed the stream of water.
“You were hoping you’d see it here,” he gave her a look.
Flordeliza could only look away. Berto sighed. He did not want to start asking whether or not she saw the Santelmo for herself. Grief had the woman hold on to superstition. Berto was grieving just the same, but he did not believe in the Santelmo. His father was dead, it’s painful, but that was it.
“Let’s go, Ma. Manguli na ta,” he grabbed the gas lamp that sat beside his mother.
Berto helped her up. His mother was reluctant to let go of the candle, but in the end she followed her son. Berto stepped aside so she could walk ahead of him.
Flordeliza continued with her visit the following night. Berto did not pretend to be asleep. When he felt his mother got up, he did so, too. This startled Flordeliza.
“Asa ka muadto?” Berto asked although he knew very well where his mother would be going during this time of the night.
“Go back to sleep,” was her only reply.
Berto did not say anything as he watched her prepare the candle and matchsticks for her little ritual. When she was about to leave he asked, “Couldn’t you just light a candle for him here?”
Berto gestured at the makeshift altar that stood at the furthest corner of their room. It was bare except for the frame and an unlit big and round white candle enclosed in a cylindrical glass. Flordeliza shook her head.
“Lakaw sa ko,” she declared.
Berto stood by the door and watched his mother walking further away to Bugak, her figure illuminated by the faint light of a gas lamp. He sighed before going back inside to pick up a gas lamp of his own. He ran to catch up to his mother.
Flordeliza looked startled when she saw his son, but she did not say anything. They walked until they reached the end of the path where the steady fall of water from the pipe could be heard. Flordeliza squatted at the edge of the stream. She set down the gas lamp at a safe distance where it still illuminated her immediate surroundings. She struck the match and lit the candle. Berto sat beside her and put his arms around her, holding her closer to provide warmth as she watched the dance of the tiny flame. Even when his mother cried silent tears, Berto said nothing.
Rumors about the Santelmo had stopped. Berto realized this one morning at Bugak, as he heard another story breaking out. It was about some teenage pregnancy that the women had heard about. Rumors, when not entertained, do not last very long.
Among the hot topics was the approval of the building permit of Fuentes Holdings. They were to build a subdivision where the sitio stood. Several families had been kicked out of their own lands. Armed men were placed to guard the newly corralled lands. Everyone feared that they will be next.
Berto lifted the containers he had just finished filling and made his way to the path that led to his home. He waded through the pool of water that went up to his shin. That was when ripples appeared. A mechanical giant, whirring and groaning could be heard, not very far from where they were. All the careless exchanges in Bugak stopped short.
“They’re starting to even out the lands.”
There was a shift in the conversation. Berto looked at the people in Bugak. Women had pained looks as they talked about the changes that Fuentes Holdings would bring for their sitio. Men had grave faces and some shook their heads at the implications.
“Where will our animals graze?” A man muttered to himself. Berto recognized him to be one of those who tried to persuade her mother in taking over the resistance.
“More importantly, would we even be able to keep our lands?” A nearby woman snorted as she hit her laundry with the flat side of a piece of wood.
No one answered her. They knew their chances were slim. They were only counting the days when they, too, would be forcefully removed from their homes. Not one of them could stand against the influence of the Eagle. Fuentes Holdings’ network of influence was webbed and had a wide scope. They were nothing but a measly opposition. Soon, even the flowing water in Bugak would be covered, buried, and forgotten.
Berto had enough of listening. He started the path back to his home, a certain forgotten box under pile of old clothes in his mind. Along the way, he noticed a cylindrical glass lying around, barely covered by the grass. He was going to leave it. He walked a few steps before he stopped. He looked back at the knocked down cylinder. Berto picked it up and looked at the blackened wick. The fire had died, but the burnt marks remained. He picked it up and thinking, another candle in that altar wouldn’t hurt.
Sophia Amor Bersamin is in her last year in the BA English (Creative Writing) Program of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She writes short stories and has a collection titled “Aguy-oy sa Yuta: Stories.”