They were having dinner at home later that evening. Aunt Laura had prepared bihon and fried tuna. Alegria made a joke about politicians, which caused Uncle Reyes to spill bits of bihon on his shirt. They were eating and laughing together. Then Tristan said, “I want to go back to Zamboanga.”
“Are you tired?” Alegria said. “Do you miss it there?”
“I just want to go home,” Tristan said.
“Don’t act like a child,” Alegria said. “It’s better to visit Mom and Dad in November. You still have classes. And I’m busy with work.”
They did not understand. Tristan again stuffed a large amount into his mouth, that he could not completely close it while chewing. “One at a time, Tristan!” Aunt Laura reprimanded. “Equal to the size of the spoon.”
“He’s not a child anymore, Laura,” Uncle Reyes said.
“He sure is acting like one.”
Tristan dropped his spoon loudly on the table, which only Alegria noticed.
“Hey!” Alegria said. “What’s the matter with you? Stop saying nonsense like that. Finish your food.”
Then the anger of Tristan was kindled against his sister. “Who attacked our city?!” Tristan shouted. Uncle Reyes stopped midway, and Aunt Laura, drinking water, spilled some on her neck. “Wasn’t it the MNLF? They separated us from mom and dad. Aren’t you angry at all?”
“What does that have to do with anything?!” Alegria shouted back. “Is there something we can do about that?”
“Don’t you want go back? Don’t you want to see mom and dad again?” Tristan said.
Uncle Reyes slammed his hands onto the table. “Hoy. That’s enough.” he spoke louder than either Tristan or Alegria. The water rippled in the glass cups. Aunt Laura sighed. Outside, a dog was barking.
“I know that you’re upset about the news today,” Alegria said in a softer tone. “It hurt me too. To my heart. But Mayor Beng said the government will do something about it.”
Be with his mouth and teach him what he shall speak, Tristan silently prayed. Don’t let him stay silent and listen and obey again.
“Justice will come,” Aunt Laura said.
“All we can do is pray,” Alegria said. “It’s the only thing, the best thing we can do.”
The next day, Sunday, Tristan and Alegria went to church. Uncle Reyes and Aunt Laura stayed behind to watch over the bridal shop. The church was an hour and a half away via jeepney, and an eternity on foot. They are the only passengers in the jeepney. Tristan scooched forward and extended his hand to pay the driver. He tried his best to say in Binisaya where their destination was. He ended up speaking in a mixture of Tagalog and some Binisaya words which Tristan was quite sure he made up. He had gotten so fluent in Binisaya until now. What happened?
Alegria shook Tristan awake, more forcefully than usual. “Not during the sermon,” she quietly scolded him. He looked around to see people sitting in aisles of chairs around him. He had what felt like a long dream. He wondered what he was doing there. The pastor’s voice echoed loudly in the congregation hall through a faulty microphone and a cheap sound system. He was in church today.
“In Exodus chapter three verse seven it is written… ‘Then the Lord said’,” recited the pastor, his voice imitating how the Lord would say it, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
But then Tristan remembered, the Egyptians in general weren’t the ones who oppressed the Israelites. It was the Pharaoh, in his growing fear of their numbers, and his officials and soldiers who tormented the Israelites. The ordinary citizens had little fault in their oppression, and they even became victims of the plagues, the consequences of the Pharaoh’s cruelty. It was not the race who oppressed them. It was their government.
How wrong to despise them, ostracize them in a land that was once theirs. The authorities took away their homes. Tristan of all people should know, what it felt like to lose a home.
Alegria asked Tristan how his volunteer teaching in Haran was yesterday. He glared at his sister. It was fine, he answered. She said she hoped the people there were well, and how proud she was of Tristan for reaching out a hand. He tried to smile. “Mom always to boast how much of an altruistic type you were when we were younger,” she said cheerfully.
Something seemed to have leapt and died inside of him. “Please,” Tristan said, “Let’s not talk about her.”
There was a distant sound of thunder. Soon after, another, farther away. Uncle Reyes let out a burp. Aunt Laura glared at him and softly whispered, “Manners.”
“I’m sick of it,” Alegria declared.
“Of what, dear?” Aunt Laura asked.
“You think you’re the only one who misses mom and dad?”
Tears formed in Alegria’s eyes. There was a crack in her voice, a mark of uncertainty. She looked down and refused to look at anyone. For probably the first time in all these five years, Tristan had finally seen her sister’s grief.
The Lord would not give him the words. Aunt Laura, who sat next to Alegria, patted her gently from behind and asked her if she was okay, before offering a glass of water. Yes, she was okay, Alegria replied, as she drank from the glass of water, in such a way that it seemed to be the cup of everlasting life, as for a few seconds a spirit returned Alegria’s face, before the touch of her memory burned it all away again.
If she truly did miss their parents, Tristan thought, then surely, she must have wanted to go home, too. But she did not, and even scolded Tristan. Was this her way all along? To never speak of it, to act as if it never happened, and to pretend she was finding happiness here? So, his sister didn’t forget. She was between the lines of trying to forget and pretending she had forgotten.
Seven full days passed after Tristan learned of the MNLF rebels’ release. Tristan returned to Haran. Today he would handle the Grades Four and Six classes, children from different parts of the land. They were now on the Arts and Craft Module. And so, he had a special activity in mind.
He and another volunteer teacher distributed blank sheets of paper to each student, then pencils and crayons. Afterward, Tristan said, “For the next thirty minutes, I want you all to draw something that reminds you of home. Anything. A place, an object, a person.”
Thirty minutes later, Tristan asked them to submit what they drew. He went through their papers one at a time. One boy drew a Durian fruit, so Tristan assumed he lived somewhere in the Davao region. Another drew a mountain landscape. He was from Lanao del Norte. A girl drew a night sky dotted with stars. Tristan asked her where this was. Compostela, she answered. And another drew their parents. And others drew a river, a forest, bananas, their relatives, and friends.
One by one Tristan checked each of their drawings, until he came across a drawing of a strange building, and people with heads wrapped in cloth, some of them bowing. Tristan raised up the drawing and asked who drew this. One child, a Grade Four girl, raised her hand. He asked her what this building was. A mosque, she answered.
A series of images plagued his mind. A city, a war. Caused by religion, or by something else entirely. Mom and dad, his mission, his lost home. The people who took them all away. This little girl.
After class, Tristan spent time talking and playing with the children. But he turned more of his attention to the girl who drew the mosque. Tristan approached her and spoke. He wanted to choke her to death.
She was one of them, the people whom the rebels fought for. He started breathing difficultly. What was happening? He struggled to calm down. But soon he was able to. He sat on a wooden plant inside the classroom shed while she stood, hugging a wooden pole. He asked for her name, in his terrible but improving Binisaya. She looked at him, eyes like a tiny cherub. “Hazeen,” she said. Then he asked where she was from. “Marawi po,” she said.
She and her family have decided to flee as far as possible ever since the bombings destroyed their homes. They joined the many groups of refugees that fled to Davao City two years ago. But they could not afford to pay for even an apartment in the city. Haran has been their home since.
Other children ran around them playing and shouting as they talked. Then Hazeen asked Tristan where he was from. “Zamboanga,” he said. “That’s very far,” she replied. Yes, he said. Very, very far.
So, there were Muslims whose lives and homes were being taken away as well. And they were here in this evacuation camp turned new haven. Remembering his history classes in school, and the lessons the other volunteers taught him, that was how the conflict began in the first place. The conflicts here affected everyone. Not just Zamboanga, not just Tristan and his sister, not just the people of Christianity.
He had always known, and now he finally acknowledged it.
Tristan went home, returned to his room, locked the door, lied on his bed, and tried to sleep. He opened the Bible and read Exodus: the parting of the Red Sea, how the Israelites were finally free from the Egyptians. But it was only the beginning of their journey to a new home.
Those days back home will never come back. They will have justice one day. Against the government, the people who wronged him. But now, he could carry others who have also suffered.
At the end of his afternoon on that very day, the screams and stray bullets remained in his consciousness, but they no longer haunted him. Then he woke up, and thought of getting his green handkerchief, but slowly, he decided he didn’t really need it anymore.
Nate Lim hails from Zamboanga City. He holds a BA in English (Creative Writing) from the University of the Philippines Mindanao. You may read part one of Home here.