Martial law fiction
The Manila Times
AFTER Holy Week, my Papa’s second cousin visited us. She had taken the train from Bicol to Manila, then hopped on the bus from Manila to Pampanga, the moment she heard the news. Her son, Berto, had joined her other son, Noel, in Manila. The older Noel worked for a construction company owned by one of the president’s cronies. One of the company’s biggest projects was the Manila Film Center. Billed as Asia’s answer to the Parthenon, this magnificent movie house would be built on the soft, reclaimed land on Manila Bay. “There is a hole in the universe,” the first lady said on nationwide TV the week before, zapping the “Voltes V” cartoon that I was watching. All the TV stations dutifully covered her interview with the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines. The diamonds on her ring turned into petals of fire. She continued: “From this black hole comes the energy field of the universe. This energy field, my friends, is directed at my beloved country, the Pearl of the Orient Seas. Thus, we are truly blessed, because this positive force will lead us to progress, to our dream of development of our dearest Philippines.” The foreign correspondents were unusually quiet. The grave air was broken by a question from a Filipino woman, tall and graceful as the bamboo. She asked: “Ma’am, do you intend to write a book about it?” Her name was Dada Walana, a poet who became a journalist and then became an official spokesman for the Press Bureau. “Now, that’s a good idea,” the first lady said spontaneously. “That would be a worthy followup to my first book of speeches.” And so the brothers Relova worked at the construction site of the Manila Film Palace by the bay. But the first lady, suffering from her incurable insomnia, would sometimes leave the Palace in her long, black stretch limousine, the sirens from her escort cars wailing in the night, and visit the bay. Her long, black hair would be lacquered and erect even at three o’clock in the morning. Her red silk scarf would billow in the cold wind coming from the dark sea, and she spoke to the foreman with such urgency. And so the workers just kept on mixing sand and stone, water and cement, poured them into shaky foundations, cobbled together one story after another, the whole structure looking like a honeycomb. And one fine, windless day, the bamboo scaffolding just collapsed, sending the men falling down into a pit of quick-drying cement. Noel was outside, shoveling sand into a small lake of cement, stone and water when he heard the screams. He ran inside because his brother Berto was there. The workers had gathered around the pit of cement beginning to dry. Beneath this lay the other workers, including Berto. Quickly, the workers grabbed their shovels and pickaxes, even used their very hands to rescue their fellow workers trapped under the rubble. Bits of cement flew and hit Noel in the eyes. He closed his eyes for they had begun to water — the grains scratching against his eyeballs — but he kept on hitting the cement with his pickaxe, faster and faster, as dusk began to fall and the bay outside started to display Manila’s magnificent sunset. But the next morning they were still trying to crack the cement. Dark circles had begun to ring their eyes. Their stubbles were shadows. They had begun using electric drills. The sound of so many drills was enough to make one deaf for life. But the men kept on drilling. From time to time, they would hit something solid under the cement. Noel was drilling with the purest concentration, his eyes focused on the point where the layer of cement splintered into bits, when a jet of blood suddenly struck him. First on the knees, arcing across his thighs, and then splattering on his chest. It was then that he began to cry. He dropped his drill and his hard hat and ran, ran home to the squalor of the slums in Malibay where he lived, grabbed an old duffel bag, threw some clothes into it, and took the first bus back to Albay. Now their mother was here, standing silently outside our white door. Her clothes were the color of ash. Red veins ran across her eyes. She had just traveled for 10 hours in an old train rattling on the tracks. Noel had returned to the building site, to continue digging. A week later, Noel would come to us to fetch his mother and take her back to Albay. He looked like a ghost. He had lost half his weight, his shoulders stooped from a week of non-stop digging. In broken words, he said the authorities had wanted the building of the Manila Film Center to continue as scheduled. So the foreman had ordered the guards to keep Noel and the other relatives out of the construction site as fresh cement was poured on the site, stopping the river of blood from welling up from below. Then they resumed building the Film Center. However, that would come later for on this day, after helping Ludy cook Tagalog bistek marinated in soy sauce and calamansi juice, the mother of Berto and Noel walked in our backyard, past the star apple trees, stopped under the acacia, and looked across the dry rice field to the wall in the distance — the thick, gray separating our military base from the rest of the world.