The body of a boy washed up on the riverbank behind the San Agustin Chapel one Sunday morning. The stench pulled everyone off the pews right before the Holy Communion. Father Amado had to drink the sacramental wine first before he left the altar to look for the source. The mass was cancelled afterward. It was the third body found in Babag in the past six months—and the youngest.
The police arrived not long after. With them, Elena’s husband Mario who’s also an officer, still in his Sunday’s best, cordoned the scene and took care of the body. Elena didn’t want to look, but she had to chase Elijah when he followed his father. She flinched at what she thought was curiosity in the eyes of her ten-year-old son.
They found the boy entangled in mangrove roots, shrimps and small fishes feeding on his bloated body. He seemed to be not much older than Elijah. The body was barely a body now. It was more like a piece of bread left in the water for too long. The smell was the worst; like a rotting animal, but louder and more forceful. Elena felt it seeping into her skin, invading her insides and swirling it around until it reached her throat. Before she could vomit, she grabbed her son and they walked away, pushing through the gathering onlookers.
Dinner was quiet save for Elijah’s usual mealtime anecdotes. Elena cooked sinigang na baboy sa bayabas¸ which was her husband’s favorite, but he barely touched it. She understood, like she always did. They were shaken up by the events of that morning. Only Elijah seemed fine.
“Who was it, Pa?” Elijah asked.
“Eli!” Elena didn’t mean to yell, but she did, and she felt a tiny ache in her chest. “We’re eating.”
Mario stayed silent, his eyes fixed on the clump of rice on his plate growing colder.
Elena had heard earlier from the neighbors that the body had not been claimed yet. The authorities had been working towards at least identifying the boy, but he had been in the water too long. Any evidence or proof of identity was drowned in the river by now.
“I’m going to the station,” Mario finally said.
“Stay home for now, Pa” Elena said. “You can go tomorrow.”
“They’ll need me there.”
“It can wait,” she said.
Mario stood up before she could protest. He brought his unfinished meal to the sink. On his way, the fork slipped off his plate and clattered when it hit the floor.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Mario left. Elena stayed at the dinner table, looking at Elijah sipping the sinigang broth from a cup. She didn’t know why but losing the argument made her feel embarrassed in front of her son.
“How’s school, nak?” she said.
“Okay,” he said as he licked the spoon clean. “I need a new notebook, ma.”
“What? Why? What happened to the ones you had?”
“I lost them,” he said.
Elena knew this wasn’t true. After years of raising his son, of course she could tell when he lied.
“I’ll go out and buy one for you tomorrow.”
“If you need anything, or feel like you want to tell me anything, I’m here. Understood?”
Elijah kept still.
Mario came home around three a.m. He smelled of Tanduay and cigarette smoke. Elena had just gone to bed then, but she pretended to be asleep. In the next room, Elijah had just dozed off after waking up from a nightmare.
Mario slung himself onto the bed and his weight caused Elena’s body to shift towards him. She half-expected him to wake her up, but he didn’t.
He kept moving, trying to find a comfortable position.
“What’s wrong?” she said with a fake a sleepy voice.
“Do you smell that?” he said.
“The Tanduay or the cigarettes?”
“Don’t joke with me,” he said. He rose and sat on the edge of the bed. She followed him and draped an arm over his shoulders.
“I’m serious. What do you mean? You should go change.”
“Like—like a dead rat, or something.”
“I don’t smell anything. You’re just tired. Let’s go to sleep.”
Mario wasn’t one to do housework, but the next morning, Elena found him cleaning in the kitchen. The smell he mentioned must have really bothered him. She asked if he found the rat, but he said nothing. Either he couldn’t hear her over the sound of the brush against the tin sink or he chose not to say anything. He spent the first half of the day scrubbing every corner and crevice of the house; under the sink, the back of the rusty refrigerator, and even the plyboard ceiling that had dark, round ribbons caused by rainwater. Elena didn’t smell anything, but since the incident, her husband has been out of sorts, so she didn’t bother to argue.
The local government of the barangay organized a cleanup drive for the Babag River the week after the boy had been discovered. Having nothing else to do on a weekend, Elena joined the drive. She didn’t want to bring Elijah, so she left him at her mother’s house just across theirs.
Mario left even earlier. He’d been out of the house a lot since the incident. He worked hard. The Butuan City police force was lucky to have him, Elena thought.
Every house in Babag is near a body of water; a river, a large swamp, or even an atabay. It is where the kids would always play. Some even fished for food occasionally. As such, the dead bodies were a problem in more ways than the fact that they were dead. A few days after the boy’s body had turned up, some kids who bathed in the river got sick.
“Bugoy’s diarrhea only ended last night,” Manang Cora said as they ran their nets through the water and dumped whatever they caught on the embankment. Cora’s son Bugoy was one of Elena’s students in Babag Elementary where Elijah also went.
“Susmaryosep, you’d think that after what happened, the kids would stop playing in the river,” Olivia said, bent over to pick up plastic wrappers, carefully avoiding the water itself.
“I’m lucky my Elijah is fine,” I said.
“Oh, by the way, Ma’am,” Manang Cora said and took out a worn-out notebook from the tote bag she carried. “I think this is Elijah’s. I found it inside my son’s bag. I guess he must’ve borrowed it.”
Elena took the notebook. She flipped through it and on one page was ANAK HONG KILER in sharp black strokes. Son of a killer. Elena looked to Manang Cora, but they were now talking about the boy that washed up. She folded the notebook and shoved it in her pocket.
“I heard that the boy was shot,” Olivia said. “A service will be held today at the chapel since not one family member or even a friend has turned up.”
“So young,” Manang Cora said.
“Was he even an adik? At that age?” Olivia asked.
“Well the Squad has a quota to reach,” Manang Cora said. “Some say even the police have quotas, too.”
“The boys are getting younger, too,” said Olivia. “We’re lucky your husband is such a good police officer, Ma’am.”
Elena nodded. She felt searing stares from the people around them. She looked around, hoping to catch someone’s glare. She was ready to fight.
“Jing-jing’s son already left for Cebu to hide,” Manang Cora said.
Elena arrived home to Mario playing with Elijah in their room. They’d been wrestling, like always, and in the twisting and flailing of body parts, knocked things off the bed. She didn’t mind. It was the first time she’d seen her husband this jovial in a few days.
Mario, with his hairy arms, lifted his son up in the air and Elijah, laughing in between gasps of air, squirmed to go back down. She had then only realized how large of a man her husband was, and how much Elijah dwarfed next to him. It looked like Mario could swallow her son whole.
She clutched the folded notebook in her pocket.
“I’m attending the funeral,” she said.
“Why? You don’t have to,” Mario said and let Elijah down.
“Can we come, Pa?” Elijah asked.
“Someone has to. Can you imagine how sad that is? For a child to be alone in death.”
“Have fun, then,” Mario said and stepped out of the room.
“Don’t you want to come?” she said.
“No, thank you,” Mario said.
“What are you so happy about? Yesterday you were—you were different. Now that the boy is finally getting buried, you’re suddenly laughing again.”
“What are you getting at?” Mario said and left the room.
“What’s going on, Ma?” Elijah asked.
“Nothing, nak. Do you want to come with me? We can go buy you a new notebook after the mass.”
The service was held in the San Agustin Chapel. It was paid for by the LGU, so the preparation was at a bare minimum. The flowers had been recycled from a kasalan ng bayan the day before, and the candles from the pista. As expected, the casket which was made of plywood was closed. A public viewing wasn’t needed.
Elena brought Elijah with her. As soon as the prayers started, which always bored him, he ran off with his friends to play outside the chapel. Elena didn’t want to let go, but those days he’d started to learn how to slip off of her hands.
It was a short service. Not one of the fifteen-odd people in the chapel spoke, save for Father Amado with his perfunctory homily. “God speaks in the silence of the heart,” he said.
Everything was obligatory, detached. There’s not much anyone could say for a body without a name. Elena stood up as soon as the service was finished. She stopped in her tracks when Father Amado called to her.
“What is it, Father?” she said.
“Are you okay?” he said. “I’ve been hearing—things, and I just wanted to know if you and Mario are okay.”
“What kind of things?”
“Being an officer of the law in these times can be—challenging.”
“What are you talking about, Father?” She felt her voice sound more accusing, but she didn’t care.
“Just, if you want to talk, you know where—”
A commotion had started outside the chapel. As soon as Elena heard, she dashed with a singular thought: my Elijah.
“Your father is a killer!” Manang Cora’s son, Bugoy, said. Elijah was on the ground, blood sprawling on his left temple. Bugoy and two other boys teased and laughed at Elijah. “He killed the boy! He’s a bad, bad cop! He’s a killer!”
Elijah yelped and stood to fight back, but they pushed him again. Seeing her son like that, something visceral and savage and inevitable swelled inside Elena’s gut and she erupted at Bugoy. A quick, echoing slap. He fell on the church tiles. No one touches her Elijah. No one.
They left the stunned crowd and rushed home.
At the house, Mario greeted them at the door. He stepped back, startled by the sight of Elijah. He extended his large, calloused hand to help, but Elena pulled her son behind her and they walked past him. She took Elijah to the bathroom and locked the door behind. Elijah sat on the brim of the toilet bowl. Gently, Elena dabbed a clean, wet labakara on his wound.
Mario knocked on the bathroom door begging to come in. Over his knocking, Elena could hear the distant hum of a rushing river. In the air hung a faint smell of a rotting carcass of a long-dead rat.
Ivan Khenard Acero is studying Bachelor of Arts in English – Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. He was a fellow for fiction at the 2016 Davao Writers Workshop and the 2nd Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Writers Workshop by the UP Institute of Creative Writing. He hails from Butuan City, but currently resides in Davao.