Monsoon Mansion, Election Day
I had almost forgotten that I was in some kind of war when I woke up on the first day of summer break to Norman yelling, “Pulitika!” He raised a pistol and pointed it at the ceiling of mirrors in the ballroom.
“Pulitika!” Mama and their cronies said in return, also aiming arms at my sweet, spectacular glass puzzle above. I prayed they wouldn’t fire and shatter it as I watched them from two arched entryways away, my fright disabling one muscle after another.
“Ah, there she is,” Mama said as she slipped her pistol down into her last Hermès bag. She moved toward me in her signature high-heeled style. And as she always did to show contempt for my appearance, she exhaled heavily and brushed the hair off my face. “It’s time.”
I flicked her hand away. Her words brought hot blood out from some hidden segment of my marrow, and my face and ears reddened, my toes curled under, my tongue dried like salted cod in the hot sun. I shook my head.
“We’re going north and spending the summer there,” Mama said.
“No. Why would I want to go anywhere with you?” I said. “I’m staying in the mansion.”
“Pack your bags or not, you’re coming. We leave in an hour. You might even like it there.”
“We are going north because we matter—still matter—there. The capital has nothing for us now. This mansion is crumbling, but we can build another one up there. Your grandfather ruled up north. I know the North. The North knows me. So today we go.” She grabbed my arm, walked me out of the ballroom and up the steps, and said, “I am your grandfather’s legacy. Now pack.”
Narra, jackfruit, and mahogany trees, laden with dye-producing bark, leaf, and fruit, blazed our trail like a parade of welcome offerings. Yellow bursted more yellow, red gave way to deeper red, and green and brown bled into each other like brother and sister from an earthen mother god. Seeing light dispersed in this new fashion, I thought perhaps I’d been color-blind until now. Ten hours north of Manila, saplings grew uninterrupted, rice paddies spread, bamboo fenced houses, and pebbles scattered at the foot of colossal rock formations. Orange-bellied pitta and maya birds perched close to the highway, and rare shrews and Philippine deer roved into and out of the road, deciding the stop-and-go of our Land Cruiser.
How beautiful, how natural, this place called the North.
Cliffs made for roads, skirting us around mountain fringes. Tony drove the four-wheel drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other clamped onto the gear, thrusting it forward and back, slight right and far right and left and center. Norman and Mama bobbed in the passenger seat while I flailed between bags and boxes in the cargo space. I held on to the assist handle and looked out the window. I followed egrets with my eyes and stretched my neck to see them fly from paddy to paddy. I traced rock formations on the glass window. I saw colors drip from woven blankets draped over clotheslines: umber, indigo, crimson, cobalt, saffron, and fire. Despite the rough ride, I enjoyed this new scene, this new space, this place that Norman called home and had described as captivating.
At times the vehicle stopped, the engine unable to take the bash from the rocky road. Then once more we would resume our journey, the engine grunting. Again and again: stop, go, stop, go. And again and again: mountain, carabao, chicken, goat, tall tree, short tree, and then a man or woman in loincloth and feathered turban appeared and disappeared, rolling away before I could even name them.
And as we slowed after a kilometer-long stretch of undeterred speed, as if on cue, Norman said with uncanny sweetness, “Abra.” In Spanish, meaning open—or, in this case, a clearing between mountains. The sound of the name rolling off Norman’s tongue indicated that he was nearing home. He kept saying it. “Abra, Abra.” He repeated the name as if to command the ridges to part, to give way and let us in, as if he were really saying, “Abracadabra.”
The land listened and a river appeared. Tony turned off the engine, rolled down his window, clicked his tongue, and summoned four boaters to the side of the truck while handing them a twenty-peso bill. The stick-thin men motioned our vehicle onto a raft made of tied-up bamboo and several canoes. Instead of crossing a bridge, the Land Cruiser traversed from bank to bank on a rough-and-ready buoy. We floated on, bobbing along the forty-five-meter-wide river, trusting completely that a platform of sticks on a film-thin keel could bring us through the blue—from evergreen there to the evergreen yonder. This was the closest I’d been to a body of water. Maybe I will like it here. Maybe this is better than the mansion—my first thoughts of life outside, my first thoughts of escape.
Like Elma and I used to row with invisible paddles in our cardboard canoe, Norman and Tony high-fived each other and pointed at marvels near and far. “There! Look there! See!” They called out words in a northern dialect and met each advancing motion with glee. At theraft’s first touch of land, Tony turned to Norman and shook his hand and said, “Welcome home, Gov.”
We arrived at a place they referred to as a “safe house,” an abandoned Spanish colonial home with a terra-cotta roof, half-hanging shutters, and a metal roll-up door—a cross between a romance-era carriage house and a storage unit. A man in military pants and a basketball jersey walked toward the Land Cruiser with his rifle hanging from his shoulder. “Gov,” he said, saluting to Norman. He unlocked the metal roll-up door and pushed it up, banging on it once and saying, “Bulletproof.” He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.
The first floor contained about eight worktables—two-meter slabs of reclaimed wood on what looked like repurposed plumbing and bike parts welded together. From the floor rose towers of paper, new and old, printed and blank. Then next to them sat tin vats of rugby glue, and clay pots and glass jars of dye—the same reds, yellows, greens, and browns from the trees that had blazed our trail to this place.
We walked up a spiral staircase made of the same metal as the door. On the landing stood and squatted about thirty armed men in military pants and shirts that appeared to have been rummaged from Goodwill. They scattered throughout the second floor, some jeering with each other, some smoking, some looking out and guarding windows, but all at attention to whatever or whoever occupied the front of the room. I walked behind Norman and Mama, while Tony and his men tailed behind with our suitcases and crates of guns. The crowd parted wherever we stepped, saluting and giving thumbs-up, their congeniality serving as some affirmation, some warmth, some flesh, some soul, in the midst of silver and steel.
Then there, there he was.
“Father,” Norman and Mama said, reaching to shake his hand.
The man set down his tin cup, got up, brushed off biscuit crumbs from his army pants and white polo shirt, and shook their hands. “Welcome, comrades, Ka Norman and Ka Estrella.” Then he turned to me and made the sign of the cross on my forehead, as priests did for children.
“Father Balweg, finally, we are together. You, your militia, us, and our team—we will win Abra. We will govern it and make it ours again. We will win it back for the people of the Cordillera,” said Norman, scanning the room. I had heard of the name Balweg—Conrado Balweg. I’d seen him on the news and in chapters preceding the appendix of history books. No doubt, the man who just anointed my forehead was the same rebel priest who led the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army, a heavily armed communist guerilla group from the Tingguian tribe of the North. Mr. Santiago talked about him in class.
“Post-Spanish, post-American, post-Marcos, post-Aquino, post– Pope John Paul II,” Mr. Santiago had said. “We are living in the most dangerous of times. Why? Because of new armies led by men like Conrado Balweg. And because of their weapon: children.”
My heart started to beat faster.
Norman bragged to Father about each one he had brought with him, me included. And then it clicked: I understood why the Common Enemy had come here and why he had come into our lives. I had learned about this at the library and in another one of Mr. Santiago’s classes.
“There are seven M’s to building a dynasty,” Mr. Santiago said. “Money, machine, media, marriage, murder, myth, and mergers.”
Each one of us, from Mama and me to Tony and his men—we were Norman’s seven M’s. He managed an eighth one, too—M for mansion. He returned to the Philippines after having lived a life in California and New Jersey, in hopes of running for office and building an empire of some malicious sort. The day he met Mama at the Hotel InterContinental, the moment he heard her maiden name and made sense of her breeding and belongings, he knew he had caught the wildest catch—a mestiza daughter of an Ilustrado with a background in politics, unraveling from her multimillion-dollar marriage, living in a pearl-and-marble palace, and raising a child who was supposedly good at writing speeches and speaking to the masses. The only thing we couldn’t give him was murder—the trigger-happy militia. And so he coalesced with one widely feared man, revered both at church and on the battlefield, and whose men could fashion an M16 out of scrap metal from an old ship. Norman had lost his home in Jersey, so now he was to reclaim his home in the mountains—his birthplace and that of his late mother’s, his mother who fed him scraps from the seminary kitchen. I’d heard him talk of the poverty he grew up in, but only now could make sense of the bitterness in his heart. He grew up in a province where bridges didn’t exist, where cars floated on makeshift rafts, where American privates and missionaries impregnated women and abandoned them, where indigenous people tended rice terraces unclothed and unprotected from storm and sun, where industry was controlled by 3 percent of the population, where foreign aid was distributed among the rich and not the needy, where the hateful advised the powerful, and where clergy and commanders shook hands with Communists.
“Laban! Laban ng Makabayang Masang Pilipino!” the room roared. Fight! Fight of the Nationalist Filipino Masses!
They pounded their rifle stocks against the floor. I quivered to the beat. I perused the room to look for my mother, who intoned with their incantation, her manicured hands beating the air in rhythm with their chapped, calloused, bandaged, knuckle-heavy fists. Her last pair of Dior heels, red like blood and like her nails, click-clacked against the same floor the goons’ duct-taped boots plodded. It was as if all the chapters from the history books I had read had somehow folded into one—Tribal Times and Prehistory, Indigenous Cultures, The Kingdom of Tondo, The Rajahnate, The Sultanate, The Bruneian Empire and Rise of Islam, The Spanish Era and Catholicism, The Philippine Revolution of 1898, The American Era, The Commonwealth, The Marcos Era and Martial Law, Communist Insurgence, The People’s Revolution, The Rise of the Tiger and the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation, The Fifth Republic. What next?
We are living in the most dangerous of times.
The most dangerous of times.
Why? Because of the new weapon—children.
Weapons of destruction.
Silver and steel.
There was nothing on TV except coverage of the elections. For the first time in years, we had power and a working antenna, and what a letdown it was to flip from channel to channel, only to find rosters for politicos and supporters already bludgeoned to death by their warlord counterparts. On the bottom-left corner of the screen flickered an ongoing counter, ticking away digit by digit, going up from the tens to the hundreds in no time. Each digit represented the number of casualties and wounded military, paramilitary, and civilians. The camera panned to a blown-up car on the side of the road some twenty miles from the safe house, showing four bodies burnt from the midsection up.
The news reporter said, “And the bloodbath continues as political clans war against each other.”
Election Day was still a month out.
Both startled and bored, I went down the spiral steps to kill time on the first floor. I had always been fascinated by handiwork, so the vats of glue and pots of dye were of interest to me. I traced my finger around the mouth of each vat and pot and stirred the bamboo sticks resting in them. I sniffed the reams of paper soaring from the asphalt floor and flipped through the corners as if they were the edges of my dearly beloved library books. I stepped over rifles to get to every inch of the room, picking up and examining, feeling rulers, paintbrushes, and gauze.
Then a ringing sound came from the other end of the room. I looked up. Norman was tracing the rim of a dye jar with his finger, making a pinging sound. He stopped to point his finger at the paintbrushes.
“Interested, huh? All my savings have gone into guns and this. And you’ll get to play with these things. Lots.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to go outside and find some friends. Bring ’em back here and tell ’em you have a little art project you need help with. Go. Dinner depends on it.”
Norman ushered me out the back door. I stepped out, one flip-flop at a time, scouting the grounds for these so-called friends. Immediately, two boys came into sight and rushed out of the bushes. They first spoke in their dialect, then guessed by my lack of response that I only knew Tagalog—Manilagirl, that particular kind. I gave them my age, told them where I went to school, who I came with, and what I liked to do. And all they said, in Tagalog, was “Want to play?”
I smiled with my eyes and the shorter one tagged me.
I had never been a runner, but the fact that I was among children who knew nothing about the mansion and who cared little to nothing about where I was from made me sprint to tag the next It. I had never been a runner, and yet was thrilled to be part of the game.
Once tag got old, we moved on to other diversions: tumbang preso (knock down the prisoner), patay-patayan (playing dead), agawan base (stealing base), langit lupa (heaven and earth), and ubusan ng lahi (wipe out the clan)—games that our adult counterparts seemed to be playing and enjoying at a different level.
The sun started to set and I still hadn’t employed the help of my new friends. Dinner depended on it, I remembered.
The set of them, now a group of eight barefoot, tatter-dressed boys and girls between the ages of seven and fourteen—and cumulatively weighing about 275 pounds—countered, “In exchange for what?”
“My stepfather has a project for me and I need help,” I said, as if certain of the task at hand.
“Lots of dye.”
“We know dye. We are from the Tingguian tribe and our mothers and grandmothers make dye.”
“Perfect. So who’s ready for dinner?”
We frisked along: hungry children, lonely children, children ready to work for a bite or two.
We arrived at the safe house and entered through the back where Tony and a few men smoked and chewed tobacco. Tony nudged the guerilla boy next to him, who was about fifteen, who then reached under his Monobloc plastic chair and pulled out a plastic bag of Styrofoam containers. He held it out to me, the leader of my newly formed pack, and gestured for me and my troupe to eat. I set the bag on the floor and opened it. My friends waited as I popped each top. We gasped every time the contents of each of the four containers were revealed. They gasped in excitement, and I gasped in revolt. They called the first dish abuos, a stir-fry of giant red ant eggs. The second dish they called abal-abal, vinegar-dressed beetles. The third they called kampa, a white fish found only in the Abra River and boiled in tamarind soup. The fourth they had no special name for but looked the most familiar to me: rice. So I let them have a go at the first three dishes, while I took a fistful of the long grains. Within five minutes, the food was gone.
Tony unrolled a poster and flattened it out on one of the worktables. He pointed at it, then to a crumpled sheet with handwritten lettering and said, “Copy these words but make it look like this,” referring to the poster. The poster read “ERAP PARA SA MAHIRAP!” Erap for the poor! Erap was the name of a former actor running for president. On the sheet, someone had spelled Norman’s and Father’s names, along with a caption about serving the underprivileged and the indigenous, and the titles “Gobernador” and “Bise Gobernador.” I drafted a mock-up, copying the sheet’s text, but in the typestyle, color, and size as on the poster. Tony, his men, and the kids watched over my shoulder as I drew and erased, drew and erased. At the fourth try, I did it—I made a master copy of Norman’s election posters. The armed men and the now not-so-hungry children clapped for me. I felt hot around my neck and the back of my ears. I blushed. I felt proud of myself, but also ashamed and angry—knowing that my art was to aid Norman in reaching his dream of being in office. I imagined him rebuilding another mansion, hiring more men, and enlisting more children. I thanked the group for their praises, in the softest, tremulous voice I could speak in because I couldn’t help but think of what Mr. Santiago had said. The most dangerous of times. Danger. The new weapon—children.
I also knew that my sketch and calligraphy were only the beginning.
The kids and I spent after-dinner hours silk-screening my design onto letter-size and tabloid-size sheets. After we’d gone through the stacks of paper around the room, Tony unboxed cotton T-shirts for us to tint with dye. Our little hands worked like cogs and bolts in a printing press, Norman’s version of a campaign and a political machine. I thrived in the rhythm of this new game—press, pour, push, pull, push, pull, print. I gave directions and the kids listened, not because I was the oldest, but because my education and class gave me a sense of command. As a leader, I felt the need to protect my legion, to make sure that what Mr. Santiago said—danger—would never meet my troupe.
“I need to go home,” the shorter one said.
“We still have work to do,” I said.
“But my mom will think that I joined an army.”
“What army?” I asked, setting down my dye stir stick.
“Goons for the mayor or governor. Bang-bang.”
“My cousin Chito, who’s twelve, has joined. My brother and I have been asked. Chito cuts grass now, but soon he’ll have a gun, too.” He pretended to fire.
I sent them all home and asked them to return first thing in the morning. “There will be breakfast,” I assured them. I commended them for the meticulousness of their little sweatshop hands, their head-down-mouth-shut work ethic, their listening skills, their speed and agility, and even how well they ate their food. I gave them endless praise—to lure them back to my army and not anybody else’s. The silk-screen work, it stung and stained our skin, but better the sting of dye than the pouring of blood.
Morning broke and I roused to the memory of last night’s conversation. Goons for the mayor or governor. Bang-bang. I ran to Norman and Mama’s sleeping quarters, where they sat up in bed reading the paper, so I could ask for a ration of bread and condensed milk for the kids coming to help me that day. Mama said that Tony had gone to pick up a brown bag of pan de sal and should be back shortly, and that asking for condensed milk was asking for too much, and that we should get printing done by midday so we could hang the posters up all over town by dusk. I left without responding, hurrying to get clothes and flip-flops on, and scurrying down the spiral steps to await my troupe. I prayed, “Oh, God, please bring them here and not there.” I thought of the inscription etched on the private school’s chapel doors: “Let the little children come to me.” Over and over I prayed, hands clasped and teeth grinding, breathing shallow breaths just down and into my shoulders and nowhere past. Where are they?
The back door opened and Tony walked in.
“Your gang’s here. They followed me from the panaderia. They can smell bread from a kilometer away, these little scamps. Feed them bread and get to work.”
I brought my prayer hands to my lips, sighed, and whispered, “Thank God for bread.”
Sponges slid against mesh from morning till noon. The kids and I inked enough paper and cotton to dam the Abra River, then Tony paid us with lunch plus a couple bottles of Coke. Sugar streamed in our blood; our fingers stung, our grins stretched from ear to ear. Tony packed us into the Land Cruiser and drove us into town, where we were to hang up posters. 191 The T-shirts, he said, were to be given out the day of the motorcade rally. Still glucose-manic, my band and I hastened through the municipality, gluing paper to walls and posts, onto wooden planks, bamboo fences, and corrugated tin, covering the town with Norman’s ballyhoo. As the verve wore off, my breath slowed. Out of things to post, my body knew not what to do in a town that wasn’t my own. So I watched.
Warty pigs, stray dogs, chickens, dwarf palms, and cartfuls of green bananas lined the street. Potholes sank into areas touched by cement, and where the paving ended, grit spread. Children squatted on the sidewalk, writing in the dirt with rocks and sticks and breathing the dusty air rising from the ground. Half of them wore shorts and nothing else. Motorcycles zipped past, dodging the zigzag of chicks and children by a hair. I was close to thinking that Abra was much like Manila—poor people scattered here and there. But then I thought to look again, to squint and see what might really be.
Villagers had pistols slipped into back pockets while the Tingguians tucked them into their loincloths. Motorcyclists rode with one hand on the clutch and the other curled around a trigger. Men playing cards shuffled their decks with a gun muzzle, while prepubescent boys sitting at their feet shined the spare. And on the dirt path, three- and four-year-olds hopscotched over silver shells. Abracadabra. Open. Open fire.
The mountain region decked itself with bush and bandit; I could hardly decide what kind of wilderness Mama and Norman had taken me to.
A mansion, similar to ours in size and shape, towered over the outback and the rice terraces. On the side of the mountain it hung, spangled and taunting the dearth of village life.
“Valera clan,” the shorter one of my original two playmates informed me.
“Governor of Abra. Many years. Long time.”
“That’s who Norman is running against? That’s the army you were talking about?”
He pulled out his imaginary gun one more time. “Yes. Bang-bang. Bang-bang for jobs, bang-bang for money, bang-bang for land, for food, for goat, for chicken. You not serve Valera, you not eat. You die. You— you and family—crazy.”
“You could say that,” I said, exhaling. “Now how do I get out of it?”
He shrugged. “No way out. We all too hungry.”
I thought of what Papa once said: People only band together when they have a common enemy. The villagers and the Tingguians banded together because they lived in an impoverished, isolated part of Luzon. Tony and the men who had been living in the mansion fixed their hope on the next guy who promised change because there were no jobs in the Middle East, no jobs in the provinces, and no jobs in Metro Manila. And now the commies were doing the same: they were committing themselves to the next new thing, say, a half-American man from New Jersey, with truckloads of guns and goons, trailed by rumors of a mansion and money elsewhere, and a wife who resembled the Virgin Mary.
This was our Common Enemy: death by hunger.
“Boss Tony is calling,” the shorter one said. “Time to go.”
The Land Cruiser brought us back to the safe house, where about forty had gathered. Tingguians, commies, children, Tony’s men, Norman, and Mama sat around a campfire—a scene so foreign, I had to be startled out of stock-stillness with a beat of a gong. Gangsa, the Tingguians called it. I jolted every time they beat it. The banging took me back to a time when Paolo and I played army, when I had thrown a baby-powder grenade over a fort of pillows—our talcum bomb exploding on the top floor, he and I cackling at the destruction we had caused. The tribesmen flitted to the music, amplifying the tune with the swish of feathers tufted from their turbans. The women and children clapped to the beat, and the commies pounded their gunstocks against the ground. The louder they got, the more nervous I felt.
Dizzying, dizzying, falling.
“You,” Norman summoned. “Inside.”
He and Mama led me through the back door and up the spiral steps.
Mama spoke as she walked. “I’ve done such a great job with you: smart, strong, resourceful. They said you would never make it, and yet here you are, running a campaign with me. Now what we need is for you to write a speech. Write us something convincing.”
“Don’t fuck this up, Strong Will. I didn’t come back to this godforsaken place to get screwed over. I’m here to win. And you’re here to help me. And if we succeed, you might even get a weekly allowance,” Norman said. “Now get to work.”
They left me at the landing where I had met Father Balweg earlier that week.
As they walked away, I whispered, “I will fuck this up, Norman. Like you fucked us up.”
I sat on a gun crate, next to a desk with a pen and paper, and wrote by lamplight all that I knew. I knew that people from my class had hurt people below us, and that my people remained at their stations because others chose to devote their lives to our service. I knew that when my parents lost everything, it was Elma and her family who’d chosen to protect me, to feed me, to teach me, and to be my kin. I knew that the children of Abra were at stake, as my friend, the shorter one, had tried to tell me.
And there, by lamplight, I penned an apology to the people of Abra and asked for forgiveness for a multitude of sins: for the starvation and poverty, the lack of bridges and fully paved roads, the need for guns and hypervigilance, and for the danger their sons faced daily.
I wrote with my pen: “This man you are about to vote for, he is not a nice man. I’ve seen him do things. He’s brought my home and my family down. He will bring you down, too.”
The speech lived in my skirt pocket overnight. Mama and Norman so trusted my skills that they didn’t think to review what I had written. All they asked was that I get in the cargo space of the Land Cruiser after breakfast and travel with them on convoy to the gubernatorial debate. We trucked on, ten beat-up autos of varying degrees of dent and rust, our ride fourth in line. Norman and Mama bobbed in their seats, and I thrashed back and forth: a replay of our trip to the North, but this time with bags of silk-screened shirts and posters around me. I had gotten used to this skid-and-go, and then—
Stop. A band of motorcycles and goons T-boned our motorcade.
“Stay in the car! Stay down!” Tony yelled and stepped out of the truck. He fired his gun toward the squad.
“Anak ng puta!” Norman said. He reached for his gun, rolled down his window, and blasted at the barricade of armed men.
“Stay down,” Mama said as she grabbed me by the collar, pressing my face down on the floor mat. The mat’s polyester purls scraped my cheek and the corner of my mouth, giving me a taste of my own blood. Mama let go of me, knowing I wouldn’t dare get up. She half opened the door, hunkered behind it, reached into her Hermès bag for her gun, and blindly fired at the masks and motorcycles four cars from us—her manicured hands flailing in the wind with a weapon about a fourth of her weight. She yelled her favorite word, “Puñeta!”
I crammed my body under the back seat and screamed, “Mama! Stop! Stop! Papa, help!” I couldn’t hear myself. The sound of silver on steel and steel on silver overpowered my cries. Bullets struck the tin around me until they lodged in bags of cotton—my friends’ handiwork absorbing the blasts from the goons outside. I wanted to peek out the window to see where Mama was—Was she safe? Okay? Alive?
Craning my neck to look out the rear window without moving up from the mat, I searched for the colors and animals that had amazed me upon arrival. I saw pitta and maya birds fleeing from the scene, beating their baby bijou wings—gems lucky enough to have the gift of flight.
I did not have wings, so I made myself shrink. I curled my extremities under me. And I tried to sing my papa’s song about sunshine and gray skies leaving. But again, my tongue dried like salted cod in the hellish Abrenian sun. So I tried monosyllabic words.
The land listened. The shooting ceased.
I exhaled and turned to look out from under the seat. The rear window framed the shift in hue. Yellow paled. Green and brown turned into granite, as if camo and tree bark could be absorbed back into metamorphic rock formations. And red gave way to deeper red.
To red. To red. To red.
To blood black.
Tony suffered a gunshot wound to his ankle, leaving Norman to drive. He and Mama got back in the truck unscathed, saying nothing as we drove off. We overtook the three cars preceding us in the convoy—a slaughter of commies bleeding from multiple wounds. My scratched face stung as I looked back at the carnage: boys no older than Paolo swimming in pools of almost black, some with their legs still straddling fallen-over motorcycles and others slumped over another dead boy’s body. I did not know which to cover with my dye-stained hands: my bleeding cheek or my eleven-year-old eyes.
At the roundabout, we U-turned to the safe house, never making it to the gubernatorial debate. The speech continued to live in my skirt pocket. It never reached the ears of those whose lives I’d hoped to somehow change. We arrived at the metal-and-terra-cotta building, where boys had been waiting to help us unload the crates and carry Tony in. Nobody made a sound except for Tony, who was moaning in pain. The boys gripped onto his limbs like the ends of a stretcher, and heaved him up the spiral staircase. Norman followed, then Mama and me. I sat down on the crate by the desk, and Mama sat on the sofa where she, Norman, and Father Balweg had been drinking earlier that week. Mama cried and I watched her. I watched her face turn red, her forehead and hands turn veiny, her cheeks and neck get wet with tears.
“Stop crying and make yourself useful,” Norman said to her, pointing at Tony.
She tried to control her sobs, but couldn’t. Still, she attended to their right hand, shaking as she tried to recall how to fix a nonfatal gunshot wound. She asked one of the boys for his T-shirt and tied it around Tony’s leg as a tourniquet. Then she asked for Norman’s whiskey, poured it into the wound, and gave Tony some to drink. I watched Mama be a doctor again. She hadn’t been in the medical field since the Gulf War, since she lost her medical license. And she hadn’t been a nurturer since Tachio’s birth and death, so I found it oddly comforting to watch her care for a human being. Perhaps the bloodbath was what we needed— the U-turn at the roundabout as our way back to normal times.
Election Day came, and Norman lost. He said nothing in response to the message of the gunfight. The kids I’d commissioned and played with didn’t turn up at the safe house again. All I could do was think of them and pray for them, willing with my heart and gut that they hadn’t joined either army. Father Balweg and those of his men who hadn’t died in the cross fire returned to the boondocks, and we returned to Manila. Balweg and his Cordillera men took their guns and gongs, leaving us as a failed political machine with nothing but inked T-shirts and tattered posters. The Land Cruiser crossed the river one last time on a bamboo raft: from evergreen there to evergreen beyond, the rush of water underneath swishing us onward and away from the mountains and highlands, telling us to never return to its killing fields again.