Our Lady of the Frogs

Fiction by | January 17, 2022

Old people smell a certain way, I should have taken that in mind before I sat next to these two Lolas. The scent inside the Pabama bus on the way here from Davao wasn’t the most pleasant, but this stench right here is something more pungent and memorable. Both Lolas and the countless faces in the crowd speak in whispers, anxiously waiting for the next spectacle to take place in the center of the cramped room.

From the very last row, I can barely make out the scenery in front of me, my vision blocked by the sweat and the shadows of at least a hundred people standing and whispering next to each other. Ah, petrichor! Yes, the two grannies and this entire room smell like petrichor! It’s a good thing that my short nose is no longer a stranger to this earthy perfume. Mama used to smell like this every Sunday at church, her white dress and red sandals completing the look. Her husband used to smell even worse, like dry soil placed underneath a mountain of cheap cigarettes. Though I’m not sure whether it’s the people who smell peculiar or maybe this is just how a tiny, cramped room along the Pulangi River should smell. I should have left Davao a little earlier, maybe catch the first bus home to Valencia. Now I’m stuck here at the last row of cheap monoblock chairs, far away from the subject of my assigned work, and surrounded by a typhoon of early Sunday morning sweat.

Trying to take my mind off the scent brewing inside the room, I take out my trusty little notepad and jot down a few initial thoughts about this place–it is cramped, humid, inhabited by an armada of retired folk with their little kids rotating around the crowd like tiny planets orbiting the Sun. Bosing wants this feature article to be in his email inbox tomorrow afternoon, and I definitely don’t want to let him down. Besides, this feature might just be what I need to climb up the ladder, rise a little closer to the top. I can see it now, Harry Principe’s article on the headline of Today Mindanao- the title makes up half of the paper cover, making all the other headlines look like footnotes to my story. Oh, who the hell am I kidding? Nobody even reads the news anymore, nobody except presumably every oldhead in this room. Mama will read it though, that’s for sure. She’s always been a fan of whatever shit I wrote, keeping my contest works in frames. Keeping them far from dust and far from her husband’s rough fingers. Well, it doesn’t hurt to dream just for a little bit, not that I have anything better to do at the moment. It was only two days ago when a coworker showed me that video of a young woman spitting out a little frog, the slimy creature croaking loudly as it emerged from the depths of the woman’s mouth.

People spitting out frogs isn’t something uncommon these days, at least here in Valencia. The peculiar video was only part of a string of viral Facebook posts showing the same scenario – people spitting out frogs after some sort of ‘healing’ ritual. All of the videos reached at least ten thousand likes and even more shares, all of them filmed at the same place, all the miracles brought upon by them by some mysterious old woman. I knew that I’d be coming home to Valencia sometime this month, Mama told me to visit them last month but I couldn’t make it, and there’s really not much to do in this little town. I knew that I had to come home sooner or later, but I never thought that it would be to write a news feature on something so ridiculous and almost certainly fake.

The heat and the buzzing inside the room grows and grows as another minute passes, swelling to an almost unbearable heat until a cool breeze passes by- a whisper of cold wind from the Pulangi accompanied by a sharp sound emitting from an old microphone. The humid silence breaks as a faint yet raspy voice slips into the microphone’s beating, echoing across the room.

“My child, do you believe?” the old voice asks.

Now that’s a great question, I do believe in a lot of things. I believe in alcohol and the naughty spirit lurking inside every bottle. Ricardo was also a firm believer of the alcoholic, he’d show me how strong its effects were through the poetry of punches to the gut and flying kicks that never missed their targets. He loved them but he worshiped and loved a greater god, the thin and silent Marlboro Reds. Mama was a believer of curses and whispers, she cursed Ricardo in heavy breathing every time he showed me his love and affection. But the god of curses is a very generous god, he listens to our ill wishes and he grants us sweet revenge. I try to move a little closer to the front when another lady’s voice replies to the question from earlier.

“Yes Inay, I believe,” a familiar voice replies from the other microphone. I’ve definitely heard this voice before, but I just can’t tell when or where, weird.

Moving away from my seat towards the cramped center aisle, I can see the miraculous old woman from the videos sitting down on a wooden chair. She sits elevated from the rest of the room by at least five levels up a little flight of steps. They call her Inay, that’s right, they do call her Inay in those viral videos. As for who she’s talking to, I have no idea. As the non-elevated regions near the front are blocked from view by a painting of sweaty backs and necks, circling around the mic stand and chattering faster than the running waters of the Pulangi. But it seems like the people attending today’s service know Inay’s client all too well, apparent in their whispers and chit-chat while the woman speaks with Inay. But then again, that’s probably how they react to everyone and anyone in this situation, Valencia is a small town, and rumors flow freely from one’s mouth to another.

Inay is the closest thing to an actual ghost that I have ever seen. From where I stand, I can clearly see that her skin is extremely pale and her limbs are like toothpicks, connected by rusty joints that creak every time she moves. Her hair is exactly like the reeds growing along the Pulangi next to us, though her reeds are dyed snow white and scattered in thinner patches across the river. She looks so old that the lolas next to me look like prepubescent Nenes when seated next to her. Forget about her being a divine healer, she looks like she could use some divine healing herself. I proceed to write down what I see–an old lady, her ethereal appearance, an eerily calm demeanor, missing teeth bearing a miraculous smile.

After scribbling down random notes and eavesdropping on the countless conversations around me, I try to move in between the countless bodies crowded around the center aisle leading to where Inay sits. Their sweat hit the floor like heavy raindrops, every drop clear to the ear and I try my damn best to navigate in between them. I push and squeeze against the sweaty backs when the sharp sound of the microphone returns once again. Only this time, the voice behind it starts to break into audible sobbing, the type of sobbing one hears in the background of dull funerals. A sobbing that only causes more whispers to emerge from the humid crowd.

“Inay, please save my husband. Save him for his lung cancer. Save him, ” the woman says in between her sobs. She barely finishes the sentence before she shrinks into a sad puddle of tears.

This familiar voice, a husband dying of lung cancer, all these seem a little too familiar. Is she the one speaking to Inay right now? It can’t be her. Please don’t tell me it’s her. Mama doesn’t come to these types of spectacles, or does she? Plowing forward across a sea of sweaty bodies, I hurry to make it to the front. I may have been a little too passionate in my clearing and sweeping aside of sweaty bodies, as I hear a couple of groans and insults come my way. But that doesn’t matter right now, I have to know if Mama is really the one speaking to Inay. Maybe I’m reading into this a little too much. That’s right! I’m just overreacting like always, there’s no way this is her. It’s not her, it’s not her, I know it’s not her. Tell me it’s not her.

“He will heal us anak. First, tell me your name,” the old healer says.

“Mirna. My name is Mirna Principe, Inay,” Mama replies. It is her.

Mirna Principe, the strongest woman I know. Mirna Principe, I did not expect you to be here. Mama, she’s really here. The crowd seems a lot quieter now, the room is suddenly cold. I push a couple more people aside and there she is, her back facing us as she faces Inay. Her white dress looks pretty like always, tiny black petals scattered across the white fabric as design. Her favorite red sandals are also present, a little muddy from the bare road outside. Seeing her outfit takes me back to when we would leave our miserable house and head to church, the cotton candy and the popcorn getting stuck between my teeth. Those were great times, our little escapes from the scent of alcohol and Marlboro. But that was long ago and those moments don’t come back again. But sometimes they do, just like today at Inay’s little monastery.

“Come and receive his love and mercy, anak.” Inay moves down the steps, leading her to be directly in front of Mama. Two boys assist Inay in her descent, making sure that the old healer doesn’t fall facedown on the floor.

Without as much as a warning, Inay puts her hands on Mama’s soft cheeks. Inay whispers something to Mama right before she covers her ears and Mama nods to whatever Inay whispered to her. I assume it had something to do with Papa’s condition, maybe a personal prayer for the great Ricardo Principe. It’s been more than a year now, a year since the god of curses granted my wish from when I was a child. The doctors had no trouble finding what was killing him when he came to the hospital last year. Lung cancer had finally replaced the cloudy smoke living inside his lungs after a lifetime of sweet nicotine. Mama told me to visit them last year when they found out about the cancer. I did not respond. I decided to hide, to run away, and write. Maybe it was because I was a failure of a son, or maybe because those beatdowns I received from Papa still hurt me every day, or maybe I just wanted to get lost in my writings there in Davao. I don’t know. Maybe I should have come, I still don’t know.

Mama closes her eyes as Inay begins to blurt out what seems like prayers or incantations in a mix of Latin and Binisaya. Her once faint voice grows louder and louder after every syllable, the prayer turning into a speeding river of gibberish litanies. The room is infested by a swarm of cautious whispering, the people clearly intrigued and bewildered by this display. Hearing them talk and whisper about Mama pulls my heart down to my stomach, the rib cage giving way for my heart to sink deep in a mixture of stomach acid, shame, and melancholy. Inay begins to rock Mama’s head back and forth as her prayers go even faster and her voice turns to the loudest I’ve heard from any old woman. She’s screaming and the veins near her throat pop out like thick tree roots. From the looks of it, Inay seems to be the one undergoing something divine here and not Mama. The brigade of non-stop gibberish continues until the sound of sobbing quiets Inay’s passionate oration. Mama’s swollen eyes rival the river’s sheer downpour. I could also feel the Pulangi flowing down my dry cheeks.

One of the girls assisting Inay approaches her with a handkerchief still clenched in her fist, she glances at Inay and nods. The girl places the pink panyo on Mama’s shut mouth, covering it fully with her fist. I hear Mama cry as her head is still rocked back and forth, tears being launched forward from all the shaking, breath not escaping. This continues until a miracle happens, a miracle that comes in the form of a loud gag, a plop, the sound of vomiting. What follows is the sound of muffled croaking, a sound familiar to the Pulangi and now to everyone in this room. A frog emerges from the wet handkerchief, Mama just vomited out a living frog.

What the actual fuck just happened. The boy assisting Inay comes in with a bucket, and a girl drops the frog into the empty bucket. I have no idea what we’ve just witnessed, that couldn’t have been real. It’s gotta be a trick, some sort of choreographed act. Maybe it was with those handkerchiefs that the girls carried, yeah that must be it! They were clutching them in their hands since they came into the room and maybe there’s always been a frog inside them, opening them up to reveal the ‘miracle’ while Inay distracts the crowd. Or maybe I’m reading into these details a little too much. Divine healer or not, Inay is great at comforting disturbed people, maybe that’s the miracle in itself. The crowd’s whispering quiets down after the miracle that croaked right before their eyes.

I head back to writing down the insanity in this room- weird incantations, Mama’s head bobbing back and forth, the pink panyo, and a goddamn frog.

“He has touched your soul, anak. Keep your faith and your husband will be healed,” Inay says as she hugs Mama.

Mama does not reply, she instead hugs the old ‘healer’. They both cling tightly, Mama’s cries being muffled by the fabric covering Inay’s shoulder.

“Take this, it will keep him safe.” Inay hands Mama what looks to be a small pendant, a small piece of silvery metal held in place by a black string. There appears to be some sort of design carved etched into the metal but I can’t exactly make it out from this distance. Inay is assisted again by the two boys as she makes her way up and into a small door just behind her chair. It seems like today’s main attraction is coming to a close.

Mama turns away from Inay, making me jump behind some stranger in the crowd. The old man covering me is not amused by my actions, he raised his brows and crumpled his forehead. I take a peek to see that Mama is now headed to the side exit of the cramped room, although I am unsure if this is the end of this morning’s miracles or whether Mama just wants a breath of fresh air from the Pulangi. But this uncertainty is soon answered by that familiar and ever-painful sound of the microphone and the cheap sound system.

“Okay, brother and sisters, Inay will now be taking her rest, you can come back later this afternoon as we continue our sessions of faith,” a young woman with short hair and round glasses announces. There is an audible groaning and grunting from the crowd, perhaps wanting to see more of the old lady’s powers.

“For now, we are knocking on your kind hearts to donate and purchase some healing relics if possible. Daghang Salamat and God Bless.” She turns off the microphone and leaves in the direction of Inay.

A group of young girls goes around the room carrying small baskets, smiling as almost all the people throw away coins and even different colored paper bills into the boxes. Near the main entrance to the building, there seems to be a long line for some sort of ‘healing relic’. For someone who seems so simplistic and anti-materialistic in nature, Inay sure has a great sense of business and profit. Heading to the table that people are lining up for, I see two young men selling some sort of pendant to the attendees. The same exact replica of what Inay gave Mama after her ‘healing’. I left home three years ago looking for success as some kind of journalist, only to end up in an old rundown apartment and stuck in mediocrity at work. If only I knew that this type of job would be so profitable, I might have also set up my healing camp along the Pulangi as well. But alas, here I am. This is perhaps the best time to catch up with Inay, ask a few questions about what she does, and maybe even ask her a little bit about earlier. Taking all the little courage and determination I have left in me, I make my way to the door where Inay and her supporters entered a little earlier.

A single knock, nothing happens. I knocked again, twice this time. Still, no answer. Sweating profusely, I begin a series of light tapping on the wooden door, growing stronger and stronger in volume within a few seconds. The wooden door and the people inside stay mute. I continue the knocking and the knocking until the door opens from the other side. The short-haired girl with the ‘healing relic’ announcement from earlier stares at me, clearly annoyed by the knocking.

“Unsay ato? Mama is still busy and please just come back later.” She tries to slam the door back shut.

“I’m Harry Principe from Today Mindanao. You know, the newspaper company. I’d like to speak to Inay, it will be quick. I promise-” The door slams shut.

The door opens up once again and the woman just stares at me, measuring every inch from head to toe. For someone who works with such an understanding figure, this lady sure has judgmental eyes.

“So you can call her a fraud? Or maybe a crazy old woman? No thanks mister,” she replies.

Well, I definitely should have seen this coming, news outlets and faith healers don’t really have the best of history with each other. Sure they enjoy the free publicity, but all that noise creates even a whole lot of unnecessary drama and speculation. More drama, more controversy. And except for maybe Hollywood celebrities or social media influencers, nobody wants controversy. It’s alright, I just have to be really careful with how I go over this. Just need to be honest and look reliable enough for her to accept the offer.

“I’ll be writing a news feature, not an opinion piece. It’ll be just about this place and what happens here, no personal judgments involved,” I reply.

“Pasudla siya Anna, we don’t wanna be called rude in tomorrow’s news,” a familiar voice proclaims from inside the room. Inay seems very welcoming of this short interview.

Anna obeys her command and lets me into the small room, a small bed with a wooden frame and legs occupies at least half the entire room. On the walls are countless rosaries and little icons of the Holy Family, perched up like porcelain dolls on dusty wooden shelves. Inay sits on the side of the bed, a cup of cold water in her hands. She must be tired after that litany of incomprehensible prayers from earlier, that would have consumed all my saliva and strength if I was in her place. Up close, Inay’s divine and ethereal image seems more noticeable, I don’t know just how old she is but she’s definitely up there in age. Inay motions for me to sit down on a small wooden chair a few steps away from the bed. I approach the short seat, resting my nervous bottom on the wooden surface. From the back, I hear Anna closing the door gently. This is it, let’s just get this over with.

“Ah, good day po, Inay. As you may have heard, I am from Today Mindanao and I will be writing a news feature about you and your work here in Valencia. Is it okay if I conduct just a small interview right now? It would only take a couple of minutes po,” I explain to the old woman.

“Ay sige lang dong, just make it quick. Okay?” Inay says with the same smile from earlier.

“So let’s start with your identity po. People on Facebook and your supporters call you Inay. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and who Inay really is?”

Inay doesn’t respond. Did she hear me? Maybe she’s just taking her time. She just sits on the side of the bed, her eyes barely open. Is she asleep? No way. I can see her heavy blinking, slow and steady, in complete sync with her deep breathing. Not knowing what to do, I turn to face Anna. The expression on her face is hard to describe, not telling of any particular emotion. I see my tiny reflection on her round glasses, her eyes not flinching or even blinking. It’s been at least ten maybe twenty seconds now, Inay is still dead silent. For the second time, I turn to face Anna and she now seems more concerned and involved with the happenings in the room. Anna takes a step towards us and begins to talk to Inay, only to be stopped in her tracks by Inay’s response to my question. Finally, she answers me.

“Well, my Papa named me Faustina, ah Faustina K. Rabak. I was born on, on. When was it? Ah, December 12, 1941. It was early dawn when Mama finished giving birth to me, that’s what my Papa told me. However, my manangs said it was late at night, the day before. So I don’t really know,” Inay says to me. She drinks from her cup as she finishes her answer, the sound of cold water running down a dry throat fills the empty room.

Well that was quite the long answer and it sure took a long time to form inside her head, this interview will go on forever at this pace. I note down what Inay mentioned, her name and age are really all that matters for the article, but I’ll take all the extra info she can provide. Besides, she seems like a lot of fun to talk to, in a slow yet charming sort of way. Just really slow in her speech. Really, really slow.

“I was the youngest girl in the family. Not the youngest child, the youngest girl. I had a little brother named Ponciano, he was the youngest. There were 12 of us, we were quite the lively household. We also had step-”

“I think you already answered Mr. Principe’s first question, Ma. Next question na,” says Anna. Thank God, Anna decided to step in and help out even just a little bit. I definitely don’t have the energy to listen to all of Inay’s entire life story. The old woman keeps her smile on her face, not bothered by the side comments.

“No, your answer was perfect Nay,” I told her in my most sincere voice. “Before you became this sort of icon here in Valencia, what was it that you were doing? Like a job or maybe a passion.”

“Well, I worked as a school teacher until my retirement from a long time back. I love working with people, especially the young ones. I’d still be teaching today if I was to follow my heart. But now I have a greater mission in life.” Inay’s smile grows longer and wider, glowing like a ripe banana on her withered face.

“A greater mission? What is this mission po?”

“To help the needy and to heal the sick. Mama Mary told Inay to do so,” Anna suddenly answers from behind me, her back against the door. She really seems to wholeheartedly believe Inay’s teachings and miraculous prowess, evident with the intensity and passion she displayed in her unexpected declaration.

“The Virgin Mary told you?” I turn to Inay and ask her in bewilderment and apparent disbelief.

‘In a dream. She told me what to do in that dream. She healed me in that dream, all of my sins purified by her love and God’s grace. Her hands were soft and warm on my skin, her face so beautiful and fair. She healed me, cleansed me from my sins and worries.”

“Healed? Like what you do to the people who approach you?”

“Exactly like that, I also spit out all the impurity during that one dream.” Inay replies.

My pen dashes across my trusty notepad, I write down Inay’s alleged divine encounter. She spat out her impurities? Does that mean that she also spit out a frog, but only in her dreams? Weird. If this really is just some sort of scam or some brilliant act, Inay is definitely a hell of an actress. Or even worse, does she really believe all of these? Like some sort of delusion, a lived lie that has turned into some sort of truth. Whatever it is, Inay and Anna seem perfectly fine with it.

“Obviously, there are people skeptical and doubtful of what you do here. How do you feel about that?” I ask her.

Inay doesn’t respond, again. She returns to that state of drowsy stasis from earlier, blinking in lengthy intervals. Not this again, the interview was going so well. Was the question offensive. I don’t think it was. Wait, was it? Anna also doesn’t seem impressed with the question, her unamused eyes staring blankly towards my direction. And they said I had to make this interview quick, Inay seems to be in no rush to finish this whatsoever. The room is freezing cold, a chilling and stark contrast to the oven that is the adjacent hall. But why am I sweating like crazy? This is the coldest I’ve felt today. Inay takes another sip of her cold water, heavy gulping breaks the silence once more. Are they going to speak anytime soon? Well, this is awkward. I feel another drop of sweat forming down the side of my face when Inay finally responds.

“You don’t believe, do you?” Inay says in a faint voice.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with my question, Inay.” I glance at the concrete floor, hoping that this will end soon.

“No, no, it doesn’t,” she replies. “But you don’t believe. Why is that, Mr. Harry Principe?”

I keep my mouth shut.

“Prin… Principe? How are you related to that woman from earlier? Mirna Principe or what was her name again,” Inay says to me.

“It’s a very common family name, Inay. Besides, that doesn’t really answer the question from earlier,” I said to Inay, hoping that she’ll believe me.

“Well, I don’t really mind those non-believers, Anak. I just do what I can to help people like Mirna. Her sorrow felt heavy when I was talking to her earlier, poor woman. I trust that our Father helps her husband, he will always protect us. I’d like to think that Mirna feels a little bit better now, after her experience of his great and warm love. Don’t you think so, Harry?” Inay smiles at me.

“Maybe, Inay. Maybe,” I reply.

I thank Inay for her time and I leave the small room, returning to the humid climate of the other room. A few quick steps towards the exit leads me to the muddy road bordering the entrance. Fresh air, something badly needed after a whole hour of floating in a mixture of sweaty fragrances. I see one of the girls assisting Inay walk past me with an empty bucket, where did Mama’s frog go? She did come from the direction of the lonely Pulangi, maybe she let the little fella go after his bizarre birth. Then again, maybe that’s where they catch all the frogs, hiding them until their big ‘miraculous’ reveal. I don’t know, I really don’t know. A tricycle passes on by and I hop in. I tell the Manong driver my destination and the wheels of the tricycle rub against the mud. The small vehicle starts moving but it suddenly comes to an abrupt stop. What is it this time? I hear a now familiar voice call out to me, Anna runs up to the entrance with a shiny object in hand. She hands me a small pendant, the one Inay gave Mama and like the ones they sold earlier. She says it is from Inay, leaving as soon as she finishes her delivery. Weird.

The view of the entrance to Inay’s mini monastery grows smaller and smaller as the tricycle races away from the riverside. I feel my notepad slip out of my pocket. I push it back along with the pendant from Inay. What’s this? I notice the peculiar design etched into the silver pendant. On one side is the image of the Virgin Mary, on the other, a small figure of a frog laying flat on the surface. I’ve forgotten about the article but I think I’ve got a great title- Our Lady of the Frogs. I push back the notepad and the pendant deep into my pocket, there’s something I need to do first. I arrive at the public market and the Manong driver leaves me.

I buy some apples, some oranges, and some bottled cans of much-needed forgiveness. Papa probably deserves all these. I buy some for myself and for Mama as well. Jesus Christ, this market smells bad. A quick hour passes by, two bags of random fruits and supermarket goods are not easy to carry. This tricycle ride to the city hospital feels like an eternity. I ask the front desk for Papa’s room number, it seems like Mama also just arrived here a little earlier. Through a rosary of concrete stairs, with each step being a silent Our Father or another Hail Mary, I finally reach room 148. I drop a single knock on the pretty door, the knob instantly turning on the other side. From here I can smell the air freshener of Papa’s room, it’s not the best but I’ll learn to live with it.

“Our Lady of the Frogs”

by Harry Principe

Inside a small house near the Pulangi River in Valencia City is a crowded room of devout followers and believers of the miraculous Inay. Faustina K. Rabak, a 79-year-old faith healer is perhaps the most talked-about person in the province of Bukidnon following her many miracles and acts of healing. A retired elementary school teacher of Valencia City Central School, Rabak has amassed a sizable following who passionately refer to her as Inay. These followers flock Rabak’s small house every Sunday for her ‘Sessions of Faith’, a two-part (Morning and Afternoon) gathering where devotees seek guidance and healing from their Inay. In an interview with Today Mindanao, Rabak claims that her mission to help the needy and the sick came to her in a dream with the blessed Virgin Mary. Videos from these ‘Sessions of Faith’ have been uploaded on different social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, each of the upload reaching at least ten thousand likes and shares.

The main focus of the sessions, as seen in the videos uploaded online, is Inay’s gift of healing. This miraculous process of healing involves the faith healer holding and touching the head area of the devotee, moving and rocking it to the sound of Inay’s litany of prayers spoken in many different dialects. All of these performative acts of healing ended with the devotee spitting out a live frog, croaking loudly as Inay finishes her miracle. This peculiar act of alleged divine miracle has not only made Inay recognizable to the region’s citizens but has also set up quite a debate regarding its authenticity. A large number of believers believe that Inay’s works are indeed divine and healing in nature. A resident of Valencia and a follower of Inay, Mirna Principe, gives her testimony regarding her experience with Inay’s act of healing. Principe states that “Inay has been a source of hope for me and my family during a dark time in our lives”. She also credits Inay as being responsible for guiding her husband’s valiant struggle against lung cancer, adding that Inay has also made their family closer and stronger after her healing. On the contrary, a number of commenters in the many Facebook posts have expressed their doubts and skepticism regarding Rabak’s operations and intent. They posit that the whole frog act is orchestrated before the session occurs, pointing out that each reveal is the same as the last, with the frog emerging from a handkerchief that covered the devotee’s mouth.

Addressing the naysayers and the skeptics, Rabak says that she doesn’t mind these criticisms and instead focuses on helping the different people who approach her. Both the local Catholic Parish and the City Government are still to give their official statements regarding Inay’s operation and services. Though it remains unclear whether Rabak’s activities are for the better or for the worse, Inay has become a major talking point in the locale and in the entire region. Many lives and narratives are still to be influenced by the mysterious healer of Valencia City, our lady of the frogs.


Angelo Bariga Allito is an aspiring fiction writer and poet from Valencia City, Bukidnon. He is currently a third-year BA English (Creative Writing) student at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. Angelo writes about his hometowns and the Pulangi River.

Answer Key

Fiction by | January 9, 2022

Modified True or False. (8 items, 16 points)

Directions: Write TRUE if the statement is correct. If the statement is false, change the underlined word or phrase/s to make the whole statement true.

  1. We both promised to love each other, through sickness and in health. Through thick and thin, we both vowed to be each other’s confidant.

Answer: TRUE. I was more than your lover; I was your best friend. When no one else believed in you, I stood by you faithfully. And just like the early Christian martyrs, I believed in our love even if the world condemned us for it.

  1. You bought us a house to show your love. You always wanted to settle down and build a life with me. “You are the one,” you’d always say in our fourth year together.  After going through hell with other men, you finally found heaven in me.

Answer: TRUE. And we would warm the house with all our fucking, you said. By then, I don’t have to worry about our cats interrupting us. They’ll have their own room. No need for a priest to bless our house when we could bless every single corner of it with all our kisses and love. This must be how it seems like to get married. But what is marriage really for both men like us in a country like that does not recognize our love? A ring is too fickle to contain our love, so you bought a house instead for us to call home.

  1. I cheated on you. I blamed it on the cabin fever that enslaved me from human touch—your touch. I blamed it on the stupid virus that isolated me from you. I could have blamed it on my depression too, after the doctor finally found a name for my outbursts you were a witness to. But I didn’t. I cried my heart out. I almost puked because my words felt bitter that made my stomach so upset. My tongue? Tongue-tied. I could hardly breathe.

Answer: FALSE. You cheated on me.

I promised to take you to a beach resort once you arrive home from Manila. You missed the sea, so did I. We almost forgot how it tasted on our skin, the blue sea, the cool breeze, and the sand grains peppered on our feet. The imperial city was a huge concrete jungle and held us prisoners, so off we went to an island to seek solace with nature. Our bodies sought refuge and our souls satisfied each other’s hunger. Or so I thought. Because a day after we made love, you craved for more and found it through another—with a stranger. Cheap thrill, that’s what they call it. But unlike you, I didn’t puke the ugly truth I heard from you, although I was tongue-tied when you confessed on an early morning. Silence was my loudest and clearest reply. The sun was already rising. “Can we just talk about this later? I have tons of work to do,” was all I could say. I was running late for work. Funny how I took pride in my job teaching my students literature and on what it is to be human, to be humane, but I could barely teach nor spare myself some space to breathe, to break, to cry.

  1. You bought me a box of Crème brulee to soothe my pain. Food had always been our way to say our apologies. It was your way to show that you cared, and that you wanted to make it up to me. You said that you wanted to be with me and that it was I who you truly love. And that what happened was just sex.

Answer: TRUE. Of course, it was just sex, a human physical need, a perfect reminder of our carnal desires; I convinced myself. So, we fucked to prove a point. But when I kissed your lips, I couldn’t help but think someone else’s lips had already tasted it. When you moaned from all the pleasure my tongue did, I couldn’t help but think someone else’s tongue had already conquered your skin. Did he do it better than I did? Did you moan louder with me than when you were with him? Did you beg for more, like you always did? “You did better, heck way better,” you assured me after you came. I went to the bathroom and washed myself, rubbed my lips and neck clean from your kisses and smell. For the first time in my life, I never thought sex could be that disgusting. I switched the shower’s water pressure higher so the water could drown my tears away.

And I never ate that Crème brulee you gave me, anyway; my tongue revolted that day.

  1. You told me that you were sick in the brain, that’s why you did what you did. And I honestly believed you because I saw how your brain enslaved you through your anger which I was a full witness of and a victim too. But what I couldn’t believe was you telling me that I was the only reason for you to live. That your love for me was the only thing that kept you going. And if you could end your agony in any possible way, you would.

Answer: FALSE. I didn’t want to be the reason for you to live nor the love you had for me to be the only thing for you to keep going for another day.  I wanted you to live for yourself and yourself alone. How could one still fight for a love that’s lost? When that love is already a losing battle to begin with? Because for every step you make in mending things, the more you shatter what was left of me, of us.

You once told me you wanted to end your life, to put a stop to the endless agony that you were treading on. But didn’t you know, that early morning you confessed your betrayal, I had already died inside, too?

  1. It is through forgetting that I could finally move a step forward. To let myself free from the bondage of pain you’ve caused me. That through forgetting, I can truly be happy.

Answer: FALSE. Because all I could do is remember.

Remember how we first dated on a motorbike and drove to Hilltop where you first confessed you loved me. Remember how I spent nights sleeping next to you in your apartment where I first felt home with my real self, where I didn’t have to hide who I was. Remember how we promised each other to build a life together in a city where no one knows us. So, after we both graduated, we went to Manila, rented an apartment we called our own, lived together, and created our family, in this case we’d call our cats our babies. For sure my Christian father would abhor me with my sin loving you. And for him, we were just playing house. “It shall pass,” my father said. He would have wanted me to take over the family business, take his surname for my kids to have, and live a life his generation would define as a success. All of which fell into deaf ears for a gay son like me. So, I left the city that wanted me to be somebody else. How? Love was my getaway ticket.

In forgetting, all I could do is remember. I remembered how I was so selfless in loving you that I lost myself eventually.

  1. I drowned my pain with bottles of alcohol and met faces of different people only to perfectly remember yours.

Answer: TRUE. Downloaded most of the dating apps. Posted my most liked photos from my socmed accounts. John. 24. Gemini. 167cm. In grad school. Looking for something casual. And quite to be honest, I’ve mastered what to say and answer to strangers. How are you? Fine. Wanna meet up? Yes. Will pick you up. Top or bottom? T. Great! Bot here. I know a place. And so, after the deed had been done, questions would arise to stir the awkward silence after a night of moaning and panting from satisfying each other. So, what brought you to *insert app? I’m trying to move on. How many years? Four. (Silence. Usually it’s that or a pat.) May I know why you broke up? I took a pause, and finally said, got cheated on. Fuck. I’m sorry to hear that!

Sorry, a word I constantly hear every time I tell my story. But what were they really sorry for? That I loved someone for four years, almost on the brink of buying a house and settling for a lifetime with someone who I would call my husband only to be betrayed by one night with a stranger, and that I didn’t deserve any of it? Or did the consolation come with an implied excuse of being lucky enough that they didn’t have to go through the ugly pain of crying almost every night, thinking where you could have gone wrong?

Sleeping with faces and different bodies all brought together by a night’s pleasure taught me that some wounds can’t be healed by carnal desires when the laceration had already reached one’s soul.

  1. I had lived in my parent’s house since we broke up. Everything became familiar again: my room where I spent most years growing up hiding in the closet, intact, my youth seemingly just happened yesterday; and my father that saw me in the way he wanted me to be as his only son. I had come so far yet I still ended up returning to the same place, but this time, I had known myself better. The room was smaller now than I imagined it to be.  I realized that I might have outgrown my family by choosing a lover over them who eventually betrayed me, but it was their love for me that led me back home.

Answer: TRUE. Dad had always wanted me to be like him, which explains the “Jr.” affixed to my name, a reminder that I would always be his. He wanted me to take over the family business, an heirloom he openly received from our ancestors that came before us. A predictable but sustainable life was what he wanted me to have, so when I told him I wanted to pursue teaching, he told me, “It wouldn’t feed you and your family.” And when I told him I like boys, it was the last time I heard him speak to me.

Dad had a rough life growing up, maybe that’s why words were never his strongest suit in showing his affection. When I was five, I told him I love him on Father’s Day; his response was a squish on my shoulder and a pat on my back. When he attended my graduation, I had the most medals hung on my neck; I almost started to lean forward. But my dad never said a thing. He only patted me on my back and smiled. It was the only memory I had of him smiling for what I did.

One night, I arrived home drunk and Dad was the only one awake. He opened the door for me and asked me to sit on the sofa. He probably smelled the alcohol from my breath. I could hardly remember what happened next, but I was awoken to a newly brewed coffee. He handed it to me saying, “It would help you sober up.” I drank some and felt the warmth of the caffeine travel my cold stomach.

We sat there in silence for a minute until I broke it.

“I still love him.” My voice was breaking.

“Of course, you do, anak,” he said.

Anak. I couldn’t remember him calling me that. I looked at him and his eyes were gentle and kind. I hadn’t seen his face this close. He had moles too on his nose just like me. And before I could say another word, I broke into tears.

My father hugged me that night. He held me close to his chest where I could hear his heartbeat. I continued to sob. He didn’t say a thing, like he always did, but he hugged me tighter and it was more than enough for me to know that after all, I was deeply loved. Words were too small to contain his immense love for me.

Anak. I was his all along and would always have a part of him in me. I wasn’t alone that night, and that was all I needed to know.


Gilford is a graduate of the BA English(Creative Writing) program of UP Mindanao. He is taking his graduate studies in history at UP Diliman. Presently, he teaches creative writing and literature subjects to high school students at a Montessori school in Quezon City.

In the Meadows (Part 2)

Fiction by | December 27, 2021

The little girl absentmindedly followed the old man 10 feet behind. She had been trailing aged Benjamin since he got out of the house. He walked past the playground and the school while greeting other people, and the girl didn’t seem to have noticed how far they had come.

She watched curiously as he stepped down a meadow of bright and vivid flowers. She was about to follow him there too when a woman embraced her, halting her steps.

“Where have you been, Farrah? I told you to behave, didn’t I?” The mother anxiously looked at her daughter. “Let’s go home now. I won’t allow you to come with me when I go to the store next time!”

The girl was dragged by her mother, and she silently obeyed, but she started spouting questions.

“Who was that grandpa, Mommy?”

The mother turned back to see Benjamin setting down the blanket nicely and cozily. She felt empathy for a moment for the old man. “That’s Sir Benjamin, sweetie. He and his wife used to go there often when she was still alive.”

“But where is she now, Mommy?”

Her mother shifted her gaze towards her and remembered her daughter’s fault. While the noise of the mother’s warnings was vaguely heard in the meadow, Benjamin chuckled at the sound of it. He positioned himself carefully while dragging his pencil to the roughly textured paper. He hummed along with the birds near him and the gentle blow of the midday gust while chomping on his sandwich. It had taken Benjamin long, wretched years to recover from Jennifer’s death, and he was still in the process—but the process was worthwhile. The neighborhood encouraged his progression and complimented him every once in a while for emotional support.

Benjamin was recalling a certain memory of his lovely wife while drawing. He remembered how calm and undisturbed the late noon had been when they met there in the meadow. Jennifer with her splendor and grace, greeting him lovingly—and Benjamin remembering the memories they spent together in the flowery field.

Old Benjamin was thinking out loud when he was finishing up. “Jennifer was always fragrant,” he told himself, “like angel’s trumpets.”

He put the pencil down and mutely scanned his sketch. He praised himself for not losing his touch in the hobby he had almost abandoned in his depression. He loved the way he drew the details of Jennifer’s face and the precise expression it showed despite not having a reference.

Benjamin’s lips moved to a genuine smile. He pecked a kiss on the face of a dreadful, horrified Jennifer—an emotion he hadn’t seen for a long time. Benjamin patted the ground he sat on, Jennifer’s favorite spot, and said, “You were always perfect, dear, but it does scare me often, you know?”

Jennifer always wants everything to look the best.


Lexi Eve L. Bacala lives in Davao City. She is a Grade 12 HUMSS student at Daniel R. Aguinaldo National High School.

In the Meadows (Part 1)

Fiction by | December 20, 2021

Jennifer was always the brightest kid in the class.

That’s what the five-year-old Benjamin thought as he watched the little girl recite the declamation piece she performed at a school event. He was sharp enough to spot her flawless and dramatic expressions despite her tiny, pretty voice. The whole class applauded Jennifer after her performance, and she quietly made her way to her chair beside Benjamin.

“You were amazing as always, Jenny!” Benjamin praised her amid their classmates’ cheers.

Little Jenny smiled widely, although shyly too, and thanked the class. Benjamin noticed her mannerism of pulling her rosy-tipped fingers over her lap whenever she got praised. He thought it was cute.

Jennifer was always good with words.

Teary-eyed Benjamin watched the eight-year-old girl defend him from bullies. While he sat over the sandbox, crestfallen for the trampled plants in the playground, Jennifer was telling them about how their parents would react if they realized that their children were bullying other kids. The bullies walked away in shame while she helped him back to his feet. His senses became slightly foggy and he couldn’t make out what his friend was saying, but he nodded and nodded until he felt that Jennifer was relieved. Until he recovered from his snuffles, Jennifer held his hand with her plump little palm and took him home. Benjamin remembered how soft and fair her skin was from the glow of the streetlights and stray lights from the houses they passed by. He thought it was comfortable.

Jennifer always wants everything to look the best.

Basking at high noon over the shadeless meadow filled with flowers, Benjamin sat over a blanket with Jennifer. He brought the sketchpad he received from his mother for his 14th birthday and started drawing nice-looking plants while Jennifer took a basket of crafting supplies and was on another attempt to make a crown made of flowers.

“Don’t you feel hot? You can go sit under that tree to cool yourself first before resuming that.” He pointed at a tree close to the blooming angel’s trumpets.

Overly focused on her work, she replied, “I do, but the flowers in this spot are more beautiful than the rest, so I have to do it here.” She whispered, “I’ve been familiarizing the field every time we visit here, so I know the best and not-best places.”

He took one of her flower crowns and observed it peacefully. “I think this is beautiful already.” He looked at her other creations. “You can give those to the little kids in the neighborhood if you’re planning to throw it. They’re all almost perfect.”

She sighed and looked him in the eye. “I wish you would stop saying they’re perfect when they’re not.” She then chuckled like a little kid.

Nodding, he mumbled, “Alright, if you say so.”

After a few more attempts, Jennifer seized her basket and stomped to the nearest tree from them, and Benjamin continued drawing until it was almost sundown. He collected his stuff and marched towards the tree, where he found her asleep next to it. The eventide’s breeze serenely breathed as he watched how the last beams of sunlight poured between the leaves to radiate Jennifer’s beauty. Benjamin’s memories of severed flowers from when he walked to her spot suddenly vanished because of the pleasant sight. He thought it was heavenly.

Jennifer was always perfect-looking despite her faults.

Benjamin looked at Jennifer’s tensed expression while she glared at her laptop. Her eyes never left the screen since the minute she was told that the result of her bar exam was out. He observed every twitching vein in her skinny wrist and uptight positions she did whenever any of her limbs fell asleep.

After taking his eyes off her for a moment, he heard her squealing and yelling at the top of her lungs. He checked her laptop screen to find Jennifer’s name on the list of passers. He jumped towards her while trying to congratulate her, but only stopped trying when she started moving in frenzied movements he couldn’t figure out.

“What are you doing now?” Benjamin asked amusingly with an awkward smile plastered on his face.

Jennifer continued flailing about. “I’m dancing, duh!” she screamed proudly.

He only laughed at her hilarious definition of dancing. He kept glancing at her, wondering if she would ever stop, but he cackled more loudly in every attempt to take a glimpse. He thought she was amazing.

Jennifer was always the best.

Benjamin gazed at his lovely wife while she laughed at the memories she recalled from when they were young. She smiled as she fetched a basket from the dining table. He remembered that she’d said she would buy groceries in the morning. She gave him a peck on the cheek and a greeting before she left, and he returned the greeting before he closed the door.

That dewy morning was filled with hearty waves of laughter and fuzzy recollections of two lovers, like dandelions being flown and carried by daylight’s wind through the past rain and future storms. That afternoon, Jennifer seemed to find peculiar materials again and have gone somewhere deeper in the store—as she had not gone home. That woeful evening delivered a hurricane that devastated Benjamin’s sturdy walls, which had taken him four decades to build.

Benjamin lived in sorrow for months. He wouldn’t eat until the neighbors pleaded on bended knees. He wouldn’t rest one bit until the men in the neighborhood carried him to bed. The thought of Jennifer unfound kept getting worse for Benjamin by the day, and the people were worried for him.

One day, the house was lighted for Benjamin, but his vision showed him dimly lit rooms and lonely spaces. His legs failed him, and he sat on the floor helplessly. The house was neither quiet nor loud that morning—it was weeping.

It wept for the lifeless atmosphere fogging inside; it wept for the dull loneliness Benjamin had bottled up during the barren wake; it wept for the dead radiance Jennifer had left in the picture frames. Their home had never looked so forlorn.


Lexi Eve L. Bacala lives in Davao City. She is a Grade 12 HUMSS student at Daniel R. Aguinaldo National High School.

Labasero (Part 2)

Fiction by | November 1, 2021

Ever since Niko could recall, Tacloban Public Market was free of rent. City Hall said it was their way of providing relief to the poor but when COVID hit, every vendor was asked for BIR permits and tax payment receipts. The Mayor said it was one of the ways for the city to afford vaccines and maintain economic stability, especially after Yolanda. Niko thought of many ways how to evade the requirements. If only it weren’t for the newly imposed requirements, perhaps concealing his Mama’s condition would have been easier. Luckily, the Barangay Capitan or Mano Rey to many, accepted their freshly caught rumpi that week and agreed to extend their dues. But it bothered Niko that, his Papa decided not to reveal what was really going on with his Mama, not even to Mano Rey.

Niko knew the Capitan ever since he could remember. His Papa and the Capitan went way back. They used to be employees at Sam’s Trading in their youth. When the grocery had to let go of some of its employees, Mano Boy was among them. The Capitan remained since he had the favor of the owners. Mano Rey would always buy from the fish stall and talked with Niko ever since he was a kid. Mana Joaquina did not seem to mind whenever Mano Rey stayed near the stall just to finish a cigarette. But when Niko was about thirteen years old, Mano Rey kept his distance. Perhaps it was because of the work he had in the barangay office.

 

The morning after Niko went fishing, just as he was docking the family motorboat and securing the stability of the plank that he would balance on to unload his freshly caught maya-maya, Niko noticed his Papa loading their tricycle. He could hear the thumps and clanks of aluminum basins against plastic buckets and knives being tossed onto the cargo bed. The sound stood out to him amidst the symphonic isdaaaa! shouting and seafood staccato chopping from Tacloban Wet Market.

“Rent, anak” hi Papa said, tossing another stack of plastic buckets unto the cargo bed. “Pota! we didn’t pay rent daw.”

“But didn’t we give Cap our first catch last week. Didn’t he delay our dues?” Niko argued.
“Capitan must have heard about Joaquina! Rey must’ve tipped us off.”

Niko secured the knots of the motorboat and rushed to their stall with Papa. When they arrived the new stall vendors were already setting up. The barangay tanods and the police took down their signage and were checking if Mano Boy left any of their equipment or tools.

“Oy yawa! Why are you kicking us out?” Niko shouted.
“Cap told us to take it down. City Hall orders.” The chief tanod said as he held his baston with an eagerness to give it a swing at Niko.
“Take it up to City Hall, boy. We’re just doing our job,” the tanod mumbled.
“Yawa, job? When has robbing our life been a job?” Niko’s ftaher clenched his fists, thought of the taunt from the authorities, of his wife, and just when he was about to throw a blow, Niko held him off.
“Hey Mano Boy,” Berta signaled; her head shaking. “We care for Joaquina but we gotta think of us too.”
“It’s protocol. You might’ve got tracked too,” Inday said. “Cap already knows.”

It dawned on Niko how everyone knew about his Mama. He and his father became aware of the
stares and the taunts. Niko even spotted someone with a phone from a couple of meters away who was trying to capture the scene. He winced at the stares, noticed the eye rolling. He held his Papa by the shoulder, calming him down until he slowly let go of his clenched fist.

“We’ll get ‘em, Pa. Promise. They’ll get theirs.”

Niko and Mano Boy knew their best chance at taking back their fish stall was through the Capitan. Barangay Hall was just around the corner of Tacloban Wet Market. Mano Boy instructed Niko to get a bucket of rumpi while he parked the tricycle near the Barangay Hall and secured the knives that could easily be taken out from the rear compartment. Everyone else was on lunch break at the nearby karenderya except for the Capitan who busied himself with counting blue bills. Ash scattered over the cash from the cigarette between his fingers and dirtied the money. Dirty money, perhaps from the many like his family whom the barangay decided to kick out, Niko thought.

“Pareng Boy, I expected to see you today. So sorry to hear about Joaquina’s fish stall,” the Capitan said taking a puff out of his cigarette and continuing the count of his blue bills. “Sayang, I can’t get any more of her rumpi.”

“They told us it was your instructions,” Mano Boy asserted.

“Not mine old friend.” the Capitan still refusing to remove his attention from the blue bills, “City Hall’s.”

“Well, what about the rumpi we got you last week, the freshly caught ones, Rey? Didn’t you—”

“They’re right here,” The Capitan interrupted, rubbing his belly. “Joaquina sure knows fish, she sure knows how to satisfy an appetite. You got lucky with that one, Boy. Heard she wasn’t in the stall these past weeks? How is she?”

“Didn’t you do something to delay our dues, Cap?” Niko asked.

“You sure taught this son of yours some manners, ey?” The Capitan took another puff out of his cigarette.

“I cleared this last week, you’re supposed to delay our dues, Rey.”

“Boy, Boy, Boy. It’s City Hall orders. No one can’t do anything about it. Besides, did you honestly think you could bribe me with a bucket of rumpi? And what’s that ey, another bribe? Look around you. Look around this wretched public market. I can get all the food I want. In this city the only way up is through this,” the Capitan flicked a bundle of cash.

“Why do you think I got here? It was through them generous people. Unless you got cash, we can’t do nothing.”

“Look what you’ve turned into, Rey. You were just like us folks once: poor. Some sense of self-righteousness got you too good to help folks like us in need?”

“That’s a whole load of crap coming from you, old friend. Maybe the loss of your fish stall will teach you not to cover up your wife’s diagnosis. You’ve endangered the other vendors, ever thought of that? You deserve this loss.”

Niko dropped the bucket of rumpi from his grip, clenched a fist the same way his Papa did earlier that morning, thought of the authorities, the taunt, and what the Capitan said. All the things that happened in the past month culminated in Niko’s fist and just as when Niko was about to throw a blow, Mano Boy took out one of their fish knives from his pocket; lashed it through the Capitan’s throat and covered his mouth, making sure to silence him. The agony in the Capitan’s eyes was just like the agony clear from fish eyes when they were caught: unable to breathe, gasping for air, aware life was slowly being taken from them. It was just like how his wife taught him. Mano Boy perfected a gutting.

“You’re just like ‘em police who try to rob us of our lives, Rey.” Mano Boy said, looking at the gutted neck of his old friend. “Take the cash!” Mano Boy instructed, dragging the Capitan’s body away from sight. “Take your Mama to Jaro, you’ll be safe there. Go!”

Niko did just as his father instructed. His hands trembled as he steered their tricycle. He took a route entering the edge of Anibong. As he was driving past the fruit stalls and vegetable stands, Niko felt a bruise forming on his right calf, probably from the vicious kick-start.

“Papa, shouldn’t have done that.” Niko whispered to himself. “He shouldn’t have done that.”

When he crossed the Anibong bridge, Niko almost lost control as he encountered a bump, luckily he steered to a steady speed just before reaching the curve of Anibong. When he stopped, Niko noticed how some passengers in a multicab covered their noses over their face masks and stared at him. Even with double face masks they could still smell the fish from his tricycle.

The passenger at the end of the multicab wore EVSU P.E. pants. Niko, unbothered by squealing pigs tied to backs of PUVs and endless honking, stared at it until the multicab faded from view.

Niko knew they could never understand the smell of suffering. Niko kick-started the tricycle, didn’t look back and rode away, away from the market.


Lakan Uhay Alegre is a member of UP Writers Club. He has performed his poems in the Philippines and New York. Some of his works have been included in Lunop, voices and narratives of typhoon Yolanda, Dagmay, the Literary Journal of the Davao Writers Guild, and Katitikan Literary Journal of the Philippine South. Currently, he is a BA Comparative Literature student majoring in Philippine English Literature and English Translation in UP Diliman, where he continues writing despite struggling with his readings.

Labasero (Part 1)

Fiction by | October 25, 2021

The day Niko’s Mama got COVID, City Hall announced that they needed to secure BIR permits and city health certificates to maintain their fish stalls. Niko had just come back from fishing, his face mask soaked in sweat, carrying buckets of rumpi to their fish stall. His Papa, Mano Boy, had already chopped portions of blue marlin, ready to be sold by the kilo. Maya-maya and mangagat, which were more plush than other fish, hung on hooks at the edge of the stall to attract customers. Niko and Mano Boy tried to act less conspicuously despite the many suspicious looks from their neighboring fish vendors.

“Ay, those are big rumpi, Niko,” Mana Berta, the neighboring fish vendor remarked. “Shouldn’t display all ‘em at once though. Joaquina always left some to be displayed in the afternoon.”

“My boy sure knows where to fish this time of season, Berta,” Mano Boy replied, patting Niko by the shoulder. “Sure knows where ‘em big ones swim even where there no moon.”

“Niko is the smartest fisherman we folks have, Boy. No doubt about it. He fish at night and always come home. Not everyone here lucky like ‘em.”

“Heard that son? You is the smartest fisherman,” Mano Boy nodded to his son. “Go get ‘em rumpi stored at the back just like Berta say. Your Mama shouldn’t worry about us when she got chickens to tend to, right?”

Niko got his Papa’s message. They couldn’t let anyone know his Mama got COVID. It would cause a commotion. Prejudice would shadow Tacloban Wet Market, fusing with the fishy stink and pollution. It was the first time Mana Joaquina was not tending to sales ever since they got the fish stall. Niko and Mano Boy knew that Mana Berta and the other vendors were eyeballing them. They knew if the neighboring vendors knew about Mana Joaquina’s condition, it would spread immediately like wildfire. They couldn’t afford to be the talk of the town, especially when they were still behind new dues and paper works imposed by the city.

“Chickens? Thought you folks were always into fishing?” Inday, Mana Berta’s niece wondered.

“Well, Mama thought it would best,” Niko replied, carrying some of the rumpi to the back of the stall. “Besides, don’t we need to find new ways of making a living? These new city ordinances gonna put us in debt, you know.”

“Well, what can folks like us do about it?” Mana Berta said, sprinkling a bit of water over the fish on display in her own stall.

“We just gotta live with it,” Mano Boy asserted, hammering the knife to cut through the bone of a blue marlin. “We just gotta mind us business and stay away from trouble. No good come from minding them other’s business.”

“Well, we better be careful, Boy.”

A week after, Niko and his buddies took the family motorboat and docked along San Juanico Strait, a few nautical miles off Cancabato Bay. The amihan breeze felt cool upon Niko’s skin. There was no moon in sight. Niko knew the fish hid farther beneath the strait. He took out his fishing rod made from bamboo, tied more nylon string to lengthen it, and coiled some dried fat to the end of the hook before throwing it to water.

Niko waited for his rod to jerk so he could reel it up while enjoying a cigarette. He stayed at the stern of the motorboat, his favorite spot where he could look at Tacloban City from afar, away from the noise, but close enough to examine the details of the city. Niko’s point of reference in memorizing the urban map from the sea was the Santo Niño Church. The church’s towering white belfry always stood out even if it was in the middle of downtown. Astrodome, the big dome by the bay that collapsed during Yolanda, was reconstructed and a new park was built around its perimeter. Niko could easily spot it. It was his landmark, a sign he was looking south.

 

Niko enjoyed studying his city. His professors from EVSU always said his urban planning designs were avant-garde. One time, Prof. Borromeo gave him a 1.0 for constructing a renewed urban plan of Tacloban Public Market. Niko examined which areas consumers visited first when doing their weekly produce. He made it his basis for minimizing traffic, solving the sanitation problem, and lessening congestion. Niko knew all the shortcuts, reroutes, and turns. How could he not? He grew up there. In high school, Mano Boy would fetch Niko from school so he would go straight to their fish stall after classes to help out. On weekends, Mano Boy would take Niko along with him in his tricycle to tour the city. Niko rode at the back of the tricycle with his Papa.

When traffic began to herald the city, Mano Boy knew which turn to take or which detour to make. Sometimes, when they had a bit of time to kill, Mano Boy took Niko with his compadres to fish. One of whom was Rey, the current Barangay Capitan of the market. Mana Joaquina never joined any of their trips, she was always busy selling their catch at the stall. Their blue marlins, rumpi, mangagat, and maya-maya always had sold out. But even when sales were high, it was always just enough to pay for the hired help, business maintenance, and household expenses.

 

Time seemed long at sea when Niko had no catch. Hours had passed but he only caught one maya-maya. His fishing rod did not jerk for hours. Perhaps it was the time of night, Niko thought. There were no stars in the sky either. Niko remained in his laid-back position and stared blankly at the city and the sky.

“You okay there, Niks?” Buboy, his fishing buddy asked.

“Just that BIR and paper works, p’re,” Niko replied, getting up from his reclined position. “Worried ‘bout Mama too, not really sure how she’ll be good with selling poultry.”

“Well, she got you and Mano Boy, p’re. Am sure your Papa’ll figure it out. Remember how he convinced that old dying grandma to lend him money some years back?”

“He never paid that off, you know.”

“Why would he? The old bitch died a week after he borrowed!” Buboy laughed. “No one owe nothing to the dead, pare, no one.”

“You’re such an ass, you know,” Niko said in response, worried about his Mama’s condition.

“And that BIR shit?” his fishing buddy continued. “That’ll just subside in a few weeks. Remember how they wanted people out of Anibong after Yolanda? Well, look.”

Buboy pointed at the light in Anibong. “They’re still there, City Hall can’t do nothing about it. City Hall can’t do nothing about us.”

Niko was busy looking at the distant light Buboy was pointing to when he noticed that Buboy had raised his voice.

“City Hall doesn’t do anything. That’s the problem, pare. Remember that landslide in Quarry? The one where some girl from Leyte High and her Mom died. That shit went viral.”

“Heard the Mom was a barangay official. What about it?” Niko tried to brush any thought of death and his mother.

“City Hall didn’t do anything about it. All they did was give money to the sister. Look at what’s happened to that site. Nothing.” Buboy heaved a deep sigh.

“What’s your point, pare?”

“That part of Quarry was dynamite bombed. Years ago, even before we were born. For one, Niks, they don’t have any place to put squatters anywhere. But more than anything it’s business, pare. Business. It’s all about that. We all know, folks like us can’t do anything about it unless we become some big shots.”

 

Niko always thought someday he would make living conditions better for vendors like his Mama. Not only would his degree program improve the situation for poor folks like him, but it would also help their family. It was a shame he had to drop out in the middle of his college sophomore year due to the pandemic.

Many unfortunate things had happened in the past month. Aside from his secondhand laptop breaking down, the situation worsened because the family no longer had money to maintain internet expenses which EVSU required of their students. The fishing business was his hope of a better life so when Mana Joaquina was diagnosed positive, they decided not to report it to their barangay. They knew if no one tended to the fishing business, they wouldn’t be able to comply with the new requirements and pay off rent. At this rate, Niko thought, being a big shot is a far reality for him or his family.


Lakan Uhay Alegre is a member of UP Writers Club. He has performed his poems in the Philippines and New York. Some of his works have been included in Lunop, voices and narratives of typhoon Yolanda, Dagmay, the Literary Journal of the Davao Writers Guild, and Katitikan Literary Journal of the Philippine South. Currently, he is a BA Comparative Literature student majoring in Philippine English Literature and English Translation in UP Diliman, where he continues writing despite struggling with his readings.

The Rice Cooker Crawl

Fiction by | July 26, 2021

Francis started the day with a busted rice cooker. It was half past noon when the youth woke up to a grumbling stomach. They spent the last three nights transcribing a thousand-paged medical reference for an online client and finally sent the copy at sunrise. Then, they had the tacky fairytale-esque write up for Nortia’s website that they didn’t bother checking.

The rice was washed, refilled with water, and ready to cook. But as soon as Francis plugged the appliance in the nearby socket above the tiny countertop, it sent sparks flying. They backed away with a shriek, hands close to their chest.

“No way,” they croaked. Taking cautious steps to the outlet, they gingerly attempted to unplug the cooker but it decided to startle them with more sparks and wisps of smoke. More shrieking and backing away. There was a rapid knocking from a wall.

Hoy! May natutulog dito!” an irritated neighbor grumbled. “Sorry!” Francis squeaked. They groped around the drawers across the kitchen for old thick towels. With towels wrapped around their hands, they pried the plug off the socket. They took a closer look. The exposed wires were singed, its cover warped. An acrid odor of burnt plastic hit their nostrils. Francis coughed while they put the offending object away.

“Should I get a new rice cooker at this hour?” they thought aloud. There were three options. One, they could give Auntie Faye a ring and tell her about the rice cooker. However, they could hear what she’d probably say.

Anak, you should learn to cook rice with a pot on the stove.”

However, the apartment they lived in didn’t allow stovetops, not even the butane-fueled ones because the landlord despised possible fire hazards. Also, they were embarrassingly bad at keeping tabs on whatever they cooked. They literally learned to cook a few basics with the rice cooker like boiled eggs, instant noodles, and the occasional rice porridge and hotdogs. The appliance was one of the few things they brought with them when they moved out of their aunt’s home in Cuambogan to an apartment in Purok Narra, Briz District which is closer to the city center.

The second choice was to buy some food from a nearby carinderia. But the portions were too little for the price they usually paid and most dishes were sold out after lunch.

Or third, they could simply buy a new one. Most malls sold rice cookers for one person for less than seven hundred pesos. They hadn’t bought anything other than groceries for the last two weeks. The paycheck from the online job was on its way before 3 p.m.

Maybe they could make it.

 

In a flurry of bathing and getting dressed, Francis stepped out of the apartment gate in a baggy shirt and cargo shorts wider than their legs. Damp hair was stuffed inside a baseball cap and they were ready to go. Hailing a tricycle ride nowadays was an exercise of haggling.

’Nong, JS Gaisano! Bale kinse!” they hollered at the first empty tricycle. The driver rapidly shook his head at the fare offer of Php15 and sped away. Another tricycle, with a passenger seated in front, stopped where Francis raised an arm out. They repeated their directions.

Singkwenta.” Driver number two haggled.

“No way!”

Driver number two drove past Francis.  “Fuck you,” they hissed. “Just because you lot got a taste of their payouts.”

The sudden burst of wealth in the city left a bad taste in their mouth. Sure, they had days where customers bought out an entire day’s supply of puto maya and sikwate before the 5 p.m. blaring alarm from the old City Hall on Rizal Street. But it also meant dealing with inconsolable customers who demanded to be served despite their repeated explaining that they had just sold out and were about to close the shop.

“What’s the point of opening a store if you can’t serve the customers?” Shrieking Old Lady demanded. It took Auntie Faye flashing her deathly glare and a firm, “We’re closed” before the former harrumphed her way out of the store.

A motorcycle stopped in front of a frowning Francis. “Where are you heading?” the driver asked. “JS Gaisano, fifteen pesos,” they drawled.

Baynte,” he haggled. Francis groaned and all but threw the twenty-peso bill on the driver’s awaiting palm before they rode off to the shopping center. As soon as they hopped off the motorbike, they made a beeline to the appliances area of the one-floor mall. Fewer people shopped there, with its bigger and more sophisticated counterpart existing across the highway. But to their surprise, the section for rice cookers were empty.

“Kuya?” Francis called the salesclerk arranging boxes of glassware across the rice cooker section. “Do you still have any rice cookers left?” they asked when they got the person’s attention. “Sorry Ma’am/Sir, we just sold the last fifty units last night,” The young man apologized while Francis’s jaw dropped.

“Who bought them?” Francis demanded.

“Some businessman. Presents for his employees, he said.” The salesclerk squeaked. “Ahh, you might want to visit other stores,” he continued, making himself small before the livid customer. “Oh, I will.” Francis muttered as they stomped out of the store.

Francis’s next stop was Gaisano Mall of Tagum (GMall for short), begrudgingly paying fifty pesos for a rush trip. There was no way a humongous place would not have a simple rice cooker. While riding the escalator, they eavesdropped on a gaggle of eager middle-aged women in front of them.

Mare, Nortia just gave me my first payout.” Loud Lady announced to her crew. She relished the sounds of friends wanting a treat or three from her. “Rice cooker or whatever, I’ll buy it for you!” She boomed. How Francis wanted to be one of that lady’s friend just for the damned appliance.

“Sorry, Ma’am/Sir. We ran out of them right after Nortia’s monthly payout last night,” Salesclerk number three bowed to Francis. The gnawing hunger in their stomach and the added stress of not being able to buy a stupid rice cooker soured their mood by the minute. They stormed out of the appliance store and passed by the crowded food court on the 3rdfloor. There were no empty seats. And in almost every table, they saw a person in black collared shirt with an olive tree embroidered on their chest. Nortia’s company logo. To them, it looked like squiggles and a waste of thread.

A hand landed on their shoulder and Francis all but jolted. “Ma’am, do you want to hear today’s gospel?” Random Nortia agent asked in a saccharine tone. The other person shoved them out of the way and turned to another direction.

“What? Gospel about how to swindle money? No, thank you!” Francis hissed under their breath, arms protectively braced over their chest.

 

As soon as Francis stepped out of GMall, they opted to walk to Gaisano Grand Mall. The roads were dusty and the vehicles were loud but they only cared for one thing: to get their hands on a rice cooker today or die trying.

Gaisano Grand Mall was not as grand as the name made it out to be with most of the stalls closed down and replaced by displays of their wares. They went up to the third floor of the department store. And from meters away, Francis could see a modestly sized rice cooker sitting atop a shelf. They speed walked towards the good and asked the salesclerk in the aisle.

“Can I have this tested before paying?” Francis all but bounced in their place. “Sorry, but that’s reserved.” Salesclerk number five spoke. “I’m buying that because I just got my first payout from Nortia.” Francis’s face fell. Body in autopilot, they left the store in a daze.

It was past three p.m. The client from before decided to send an untimely message over their phone.

To: Francesca Rico
Subj: Paycheck

Greetings Mrs. Rico!
We’re sorry if we cannot send you your paycheck because we had some issues to resolve before we could get to your mail. We might be able to deliver your payment within two or three days.

More power and Godspeed!

Nancy Hidalgo
HILAS Corp.

 

Francis hastily stuffed the phone in the front pocket of the shorts. With a deep inhale, they bellowed, “Putang-ina, I just want to eat!” Unbothered by the passersby glancing at them, their gaze was trained on the 7-Eleven across the street. Of course. They could approach him.

“Oh, Sir Pat’s on leave. He said he had things to sort out at home,” Connie answered when they asked about Patrick Ruiz’s whereabouts. “Is he in Kapalong?” Connie shook her head. “He’s probably in J Village. I can give you his phone number if you want,” she offered.

“It’s okay, I already have it.” Francis quipped. Connie excused herself to clean the tables, clearing them of trash and wiping them. Phone in hand and with Patrick’s number onscreen, they shot a quick text.

To: Business Geek

It’s Frankie. Mind if I crash ur place? Gutom na kaayo.

Patrick replied with “Okay.” With the last hundred-peso bill in hand, Francis hailed a tricycle to J Village. “Twenty pesos ‘kol.” The driver’s beady eyes were on the purple bill in Francis’s fist before he reluctantly let the other person ride. The drive going to Patrick’s house was slow with the traffic. Hunger threatened to rip a hole in their stomach.

Francis was in front of the peeling black gate when Patrick, dressed in a blue shirt and grey shorts, greeted them. They all but tackled the man, babbling a mix of “My savior” and “God, I’m starving.” Patrick caught them in a hold and tried not to laugh when Francis began to retell their crazed day, letting them be ushered inside.

“And the damn plug just had to do a mini fireworks show in my apartment!” they groaned. “You could’ve learned to cook with a pot on the stove.” Patrick replied while he scooped a generous bit of steamed rice in a bowl and ignored Francis’s glare. “Landlord won’t let us use stoves but he has one in his home. Hypocrite.” They pouted. But as soon as Patrick laid the food, a bit of squid adobo and hot steamed rice in front of Francis, they all but attacked the meal. He fixed himself a cup of coffee while he watched the other polish the food off their bowls and plate.

At last, Francis finished eating. “That was good, Pat. Thanks a lot.” Patrick ran a nervous hand on the back of his head. “It was my first time cooking that dish so I’m glad you liked it,” he stammered. The other snickered.

“So about that rice cooker thing, I happen to have an old one lying around,” Patrick continued. Francis listened raptly. “I haven’t used it for a few weeks since I have to get a bigger one, now that Enzo’s staying here. It’s still good though.”

“Do you mean…”

“Yeah, you can have it if you want.”

“How much?” Francis began to pull out the last bits of their allowance from the pocket. “No need to pay. You need it more than I do.” Patrick affirmed.

“You’re serious,” Francis deadpanned. The other nodded as he tried to find the rice cooker from the kitchen cabinets. Minutes later, he handed the small and well-used appliance to Francis.

“Guess I should leave? It’s your day off.” Francis mumbled as they headed to the door. “I could use a movie buddy for a few hours. Join me?” Patrick asked.

Francis placed the unexpected gift on the dining table, sitting beside Patrick to watch Shake, Rattle, and Roll.


Sarika Rey completed her BA English-Creative Writing degree in the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

Sonny 2 Needs a Heart

Fiction by | July 5, 2021

SV2 – Log 1

 Today I started building Sonny 2.

I decided to call it Sonny because Tatay’s name is Sonny. It is 2 because Tatay is 1. Nanay told me that it’s inappropriate to name a toy after my father, and I don’t know how to tell her that it is not a toy.

Anyway, I didn’t sleep much last night thinking of what it should look like. I kept drawing and drawing until the bumps on my fingers started to look like little mountains.

I would like to write more but as I said, my hand hurts and if I continue, this will be unreadable.

Here’s what Sonny 2 looks like: he has a wig to protect his head from bumps, his body is an oven, tv, and washing machine to help Mama, and he has rocket boots to carry me and help me see Papa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SV2 – Log 2

            Tatay called us today, so I was again inspired to work on Sonny 2. I thought of Tatay’s voice a lot. He sounded big and strong. He could reach the moon and crush it in his palm like a nut. Sonny 2 will be the same.

            I thought of how to build Sonny 2’s arms and legs. I have to go to Manong Alonso’s motor repair shop to see if he has the materials I need. If not, I will have to find some wood and rebars and pipes and old bowls (for the shoulders and kneecaps) myself.

            I don’t really know where Tatay is. He says that’s the point. He’s a seafarer, after all. His trips last about a year usually, but sometimes it’s more.  He could be anywhere in the world right now. Whenever I ask him, he answers with a different place. He was in France. He was in England. He was in America. He was in some other places I don’t remember.       

Sonny 2’s new target completion time: When Tatay comes home.

 

SV2 – Log 3

            I went to Manong Alonso’s place today. He said he couldn’t give me any of the materials I needed for free. The prices were too much! I tried to negotiate and he said that the best he could do was around 500 pesos. I’ve never even seen that much money!

I asked Nanay if she could help me with the money but she said that we didn’t have any because school is about to start. I told her that I didn’t need to go to school this year and she got really really mad. I said I was sorry. I didn’t know how important Grade 5 was to her and I felt bad.

Tomorrow, I will rummage through the neighbors’ garbage to see if there’s anything I can use.

SV2 – Log 4

            My cousin Biboy visited me today. I showed him my plans for Sonny 2, and he said it was impossible to make. I punched him in the stomach and I cried because he cried.

            During dinner time, I thought of Sonny 2’s head. I thought of how he could think. How smart should Sonny 2 be? Surely not as smart as me. Sonny 2 is tall, so it might hurt if he bumps into the branches of trees.

            Note 1: Make Sonny 2’s head as hard as can be.

            Note 2: Don’t punch Biboy again because he is your friend and he was really hurt.

 

SV2 – Log 5

            Today is my birthday and Nanay cooked me spaghetti when she came home from work. She sells vegetables and fruits at the market. I invited Biboy because  he already forgave me for punching him the other day. Friends may fight with each other, but in the end, they will share a bowl of spaghetti.

            Today I worked on Sonny 2’s stomach. My biggest problem was this: I knew how inconvenient it would be if he had to pee, but I wanted him to still be able to eat delicious things.

            I spent the rest of the day thinking of what to do.

            Note: Teach Sonny 2 how to cook so that Nanay wouldn’t have to work as much.

 

SV2 – Log 6

            It is Tatay’s birthday today. I borrowed Nanay’s phone to call him. I was sad that I didn’t have any gifts for him so I showed him my drawings of Sonny 2. He laughed so much. I think he really liked it. He said that he can’t wait to come home to play with Sonny 2 and me.

            Here’s another problem: Sonny 2 needed a heart. With it, Sonny 2 can move wherever he likes. He can love whoever he wants. Tatay once bought me a book called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Tin Man also needed a heart. I thought of making a silk-and-sawdust heart, but I didn’t want to lie to Sonny 2. He needed a real heart.

            Note: Find a heart for Sonny 2.

 

SV2 – Log 7

            Note: Find a heart for Sonny 2.

 

SV2 – Log 8

            It’s been a month since I worked on Sonny 2. I didn’t know where to find a heart. I was afraid that I was wasting my time.

 

SV2 – Log 9

            Today Tatay called again and said he won’t be able to come home this year. Nanay said that Tatay had to work so that I could go to school. That’s okay. I haven’t found a heart for Sonny 2 yet, anyway.

            That’s okay.

 

SV2 – Log 10

            Last night I dreamt that I was Sonny 2’s heart.

            It was hot inside his chest but it wasn’t hot enough so that I would burn. I was so happy that Sonny 2 could finally move. We went to France. We went to England. We went to some other places I don’t remember. I met Tatay and he rode Sonny 2’s back. I was so glad to see him be able to rest.

            When I woke up, I cried because it wasn’t true at all.

            Still, I will continue working on Sonny 2 until Tatay comes home. I asked Biboy and Nanay to help me and they agreed. Friends and mothers are great like that.

            Note: I am Sonny 2’s heart.

***

Ivan Khenard Acero studies creative writing in the University of the Philippines Mindanao. He has been a fellow to the Davao Writers Workshop and the Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers Workshop. An animated version of this story can be viewed here.