The girl does not come to Mebuyen, so Mebuyen goes to the girl.
She is standing ankle-deep in the river, looking down, her mouth open. Mebuyen notices, as she draws closer, that the child’s calves are skinny, her cheeks chubby, and her SpongeBob Squarepants sando has a bullet-sized hole above her ribs. Mebuyen frowns as she steps into the river, waiting for the girl to speak.
“Why is this river so clean?” the girl asks. “I can see my feet!” She lifts one foot, then the other; her voice is high and filled with wonder.
“It isn’t clean, really,” Mebuyen says. The dirt they are standing on is packed with fears and pains, the current made of tears, the silt of sadness. There are no fish, not even algae. Though it is sweet to drink, the water cannot be used on anything in a garden—Mebuyen has tried, and grumbled at the results. “It’s just clear, at the moment.”
The girl turns her gaze to Mebuyen and blinks. “You’re bomba! Why?”
“I don’t like clothes,” Mebuyen says impatiently. “What’s your name, anak?”
“Adriana po.” Mebuyen reaches out her hand, and after a brief hesitation, the girl takes it. Her skin against Mebuyen’s is warm, still full of life, and she curls her fingers into Mebuyen’s fleshy palm as if suddenly afraid. “Where are we going?”
“To my house. You can rest there a bit.”
Adriana considers this. With her free hand she fingers the hole in her shirt. Then, with a slight tremor: “Am I dead?”
Mebuyen sighs. She was hoping the girl would not ask.
The girl shares her story as if she is recounting something peculiar that happened at school: thoughtful, but not with extreme anger or sadness. She sits at Mebuyen’s table, elbows splayed, drinking the sweet milk Mebuyen poured for her. “This tastes like Yakult,” she says. Mebuyen wonders whether to take that as a compliment. She has not felt concern in a long time, and the emotion sits heavy in her chest, like a stone.
There was a man, Adriana starts, then scrunches up her face. I was playing jackstones on the second floor. There were three of them actually, who came in. They ... I think they were police. They were all wearing blue shirts and um, um, blue pants. I did not see them come in but I heard them come in so I ran to the staircase to see. They shouted “Bonifacio! Bonifacio Magsaysay! We know you’re here!” Lolo Basyo was outside helping mama make tinola. Lola came out from her room and saw them and screamed, so I ran down the stairs to—to be near her. My lolo came in through the screen door, they said “That’s him!” and then I heard a bang, and then ... everything stopped. That’s why I think I’m dead po. They shot me yata.
You were shot by the police?
Mebuyen brewed herself a glass of pandan tea, but she has not been able to drink, intent as she is on listening. Mebuyen is never cold, but she warms her hands against the glass anyway.
Adriana shrugs. Her face grows sulky, like she doesn’t want to talk about it. Mebuyen softens, in her heart if not in her gnarled face, and asks Adriana if she wants another glass of milk. The girl nods eagerly. “Do you have TV po? I want to watch Naruto.” Mebuyen realizes this visit may last longer than she expects.
Juan Miguel Pulag, known to friends and family as JM, has not slept in two days. His mother doesn’t know, though she tells him, jokingly, that he looks like he has seen death. He does not have the heart to say: that’s not funny. It’s not that he doesn’t have time to sleep, the way it was back in high school when some nights he’d only have twenty-minute naps between textbook chapters. This is different. These days, he lies in bed and stares at the creaky ceiling fan forever, and when he closes his eyes it’s as if he’s still awake, and there is no darkness; only the ceiling fan, lazily spinning. Sometimes there are shadows behind it that slowly shift into shapes like hands and faces. Then he opens his eyes again, drenched in sweat, cold to the bone.
Sometimes he hears, far-off but steadily growing louder, like someone slowly turning up the volume on a TV, the cry of an old woman—startled at first, high and sharp, followed by a wail of despair that stretches, endlessly, until the sound cannot possibly be human anymore.
Adriana-a-a-a-aaaa. The old woman grabbed the girl, clutching her hair, her shoulders, patting her face gently, then with more and more force.
JM doesn’t remember who pulled the trigger, but when Sir Marco barked at them to chase Bonifacio Magsaysay, he followed his orders. He ran out the back door, gun held out, and the mother outside screamed, of course she did. As he chased Bonifacio Magsaysay down the street, neighbors rushing out of the way, he continued to hear the woman’s cry, stretching that a-a-a to eternity. He lost Bonifacio Magsaysay in a crowded market, him and Digo both. Without a criminal in hand he dreaded it more: returning to that house, to see blood on the floor, the little girl covered in it.
JM is sure he did not pull the trigger. JM is pretty sure he did not. He is a good shot. His hands never tremble when he holds a gun. When they returned, him and Digo panting, the mother was at the door, staring blankly. Her tinola soup was overflowing; he switched the stove off. Sir Marco could be heard from the street: “Why did she run down the stairs? Look what happened, because of that!”
JM's mother isn’t wrong. He has seen a lot of death before. He is not some candidate fresh from the academy, jumping at every little thing. It was unfortunate, what happened, but he always knew the price to end the war on drugs would be high. He’d known from when their new president stepped into power. They were told things would be difficult, but in the end the world would be safer-better-more-productive, free of crime and the scum of the earth, those who succumbed to the sweet siren call of shabu. And JM, like all his fellow policemen, wanted the Philippines to be free. Your mothers, sisters, daughters will walk safely through the night! the precinct chief told them, a few weeks after they started, when some were growing faint of heart. Their shrunken minds are useless to our society. Don’t you see?
JM saw. JM did not question what they did, because he knew what good it would bring.
On the third day, Nanay makes him lugaw, his favorite from when he was a child. While stirring in toyo, he sees the line of soy sauce turn red, the rice blending from gray to ghastly pink. He chokes. Nanay turns to him, concerned, but the lugaw looks normal again. “Nasamid lang po ako,” he says.
“Drink water,” she advises fondly.
He falls asleep for the first time since the little girl died. In his dream the old woman passes him a cup of her granddaughter’s blood. She tells him to drink it, and calls him a sinner.
“Manang Em, Manang Em!” Adriana has taken to calling her this. Mebuyen does not mind. The last few days, in response to Adriana’s wistful droning about being bored because there’s no TV and now she won’t know what happens next on One Piece, she has set Adriana to work on her garden, where she grows okra and kamote and corn. She has a finicky banana tree that turns out sweet little latundans from time to time. And a precious lemon tree that she does not shake, for fear of how many might fall. There is no way to mark the seasons, here in the underworld, Mebuyen’s town with its endless river and little stone house. The sky turns from a pale gray day to a soft blue night, and there are no stars. She recognizes all this only because of Adriana’s endless questions. Mebuyen answers, and tries not to grow fond. She’s too old for that sort of thing.
Adriana muses aloud: “Why did they come for my lolo? He voted for the president, you know. He wasn’t a pusher. Lola said he went to the police station to make sure he was safe. We thought he was safe.”
Then: “I wonder why they shot me?”
This, Mebuyen cannot answer.
She is preparing her milk when Adriana calls her, so she does not rise immediately. “Manang Em,” Adriana repeats forcefully; Mebuyen lumbers off her stool to see what the matter is.
There is a new visitor, kneeling by the river. A beautiful girl, looking dazed, dreamy. She looks twenty, twenty-one—still a child to Mebuyen, but not quite as young as Adriana. She is wearing a Barong Tagalog, which Mebuyen finds odd, until she looks more closely and thinks: Ah. Adriana is capering near her, full of adrenaline. Closer now, Mebuyen can see that the girl is wearing makeup, expertly applied, but tears have smudged the mascara, and the color on her cheeks is chalky.
The girl notices this scrutiny, and with dignity, says, “It’s not waterproof makeup, okay? That’s too expensive.”
Mebuyen smiles in spite of herself. “What’s your name?”
“Babygirl Santos,” she answers, defiant, like a pageant contestant. At this she finds her strength and stands, regally. Mebuyen notices that despite the barong, Babygirl is wearing heels—beautiful, shimmery, four-inch heels that make her tower like a gorgeous pillar. “My name is Babygirl Santos, twenty-four years old, from Tondo. My talent is singing like Whitney Houston and Ariana Grande. I am also very good at dancing the cha-cha and kpop covers. I am not a drug dealer!”
Hay naku, Mebuyen thinks. She may have to visit her brother in the world of men, little as she likes to.
For dinner that night they have mashed bananas and cassava cake. Mebuyen is not sure if they can taste anything—she has never bothered to ask—but she knows the physical sensation of food, of chewing and swallowing, is comforting to those who visit her. Many of them cry when eating their first meal. But Adriana did not, and neither does Babygirl, who has broken through her bewilderment to become effusive and bubbly, much like the beauty queen she was in life.
She tells her story like something out of a telenovela. They knocked on my door. They said my real name—Eduardo Reyes—so macho, no? I hate it—and I immediately knew what it was about. But they were wrong! I haven’t taken drugs in like three years. And the last time I sold one was eight months ago and it was to some rich boy in Makati, which of course as you know, he won’t get caught, because he has a driver and a huge condo. So they called my name and the knocking became banging and my sister, Janelle, the sweetheart, she looked me dead in the eye and said do not open the door. And I said, Jel, Jel, where can I hide? They’re going to kill me! She told me to go upstairs and they kicked the door open as I was going upstairs and, yun nga, there was nowhere to hide. I crawled into the closet. Janelle screamed at them as they came up the stairs, and they found me, of course.
Our house isn’t very big kasi.
I shouldn’t have been home. I’m so sorry Ma had to see it all. She was standing by the Santo Niño as they dragged me out, then she fell to her knees bigla, pleading. Don’t take my child away! He’s my only son! She was crying and crying. Outside the street was empty and the sky was medyo reddish. Janelle tried to grab the arm of one man and he shoved her away and pointed his gun at her. Do you want to die? he asked. I was calm then, I knew there was no way to escape, and the funny thing was, he didn’t sound angry or threatening—he actually sounded scared. Like he was begging her not to follow.
Jel, I called out to her. Jel, tama na, it’s okay. Stop na. It’s okay. Tell mama I love her. Tell papa I love him, I’m sorry I could never be his son. The one dragging me hit my mouth. A bloody mouth tastes like salt pala. Shut up! he said. Nag-English pa siya.
I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot.
Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?”
“It’s not,” Mebuyen says.
“But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?”
Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”
Babygirl drinks the milk, then looks at Mebuyen’s boobs. “You have so many,” Babygirl says wistfully. “Can’t I have just one set? Not even here?”
JM is not surprised when the sister of Eduardo Reyes appears on TV. Beneath her name, Janella Reyes, is the subtitle: sister of the deceased. Her eyes are bright, huge and accusing, as she says to the reporter, “What they are doing is wrong. What they are doing is murder. They killed my innocent sister as if she were a pig. Are we pigs, that you can treat us like this?” She looks at the camera; it’s as if she’s looking right at him. “Shame on you.” Her tone is low and even, each syllable clearly enunciated. “Putangina niyo, you murderers. We will not let you get away with this.”
The words make his body twinge all over, but he doesn’t change the channel. He recalls how she tried to grab his arm, how he pushed her aside and asked her: Do you want to die?
Later that night, back at the station, his captain had clapped him on the shoulder for a job well done. He kept looking at the image of the Virgin Mary behind the shoulder of his superior. Her eyes were downcast, and her mouth was a small, sad curve. He wondered what she was looking at.
He felt proud; he felt like vomiting.
You’re wrong, he thinks at the TV. Your brother was not innocent. He was a drug user and a drug dealer, and he deserved to die.
The news report goes on to tally the number of reported extrajudicial killings that month. Nanay, watching with JM while stringing some beads onto rosaries to sell at church on Sunday, moves her glasses higher up her nose. “That wasn’t far from here.”
“No,” he agrees.
“I will pray,” Nanay says, “For your safety. They fight back, don’t they? It’s so scary.”
He does not tell her that her prayers might be petitioning for the wrong soul; that the Virgin’s image in his mind is now locked forever on a body just beyond his vision, lying at his feet.
Babygirl and Adriana become fast friends. They spend the underworld-equivalent-of-day playing in the garden, tending to plants, having dance-offs, singing duets. Babygirl has a beautiful voice and often sings about love, in English. Some people want it all, but I don’t want nothing at all, she croons, holding an imaginary mic. One time Babygirl braids Adriana’s hair all over, securing it with a pack of clear elastics they found in Mebuyen’s kitchen. They often walk by the river, sometimes wading in it, sometimes keeping to the bank and drawing in the soft soil with twigs.
“Where does the river flow to?” they ask.
“The next place,” Mebuyen answers. They look at each other and shrug.
Mebuyen mashes rice in a bowl and pours milk over it, but this tells her nothing. She boils bananas in a pot and empties the grayish water onto a plot of soil in her garden, but there isn’t anything to read in the soaked compost. Finally, after a lot of grumbling, she decides to visit the world of men. She sends her emissary, a little maya bird, to let her brother know she will be ascending. She makes sure to add that because it is so rare for her to do so, and her knees are particularly creaky these days, he may perhaps wish to meet her halfway.
He greets her at Carriedo Station in Manila, wearing a nice button-down polo and maong jeans. Lumabat looks older, but his skin is much nicer than hers, which makes her a little jealous. Mebuyen has not come up in what men might describe as a decade, so she feels proud of her sleeveless shirt and khaki shorts, which make her look like any other manang. She notices everyone holding a small, rectangular skinny box, and glaring at it, their thumbs pounding away.
“Those? Those are cellphones,” Lumabat says. “Oh, they call them smartphones these days.”
“Phones? But they aren’t talking at all?”
“They’re texting. Or surfing the web. You know, Facebook?”
Mebuyen is mystified, but does not try to understand. The world gets stranger each time she visits.
Over lunch at Ma Mon Luk, she explains her quandary. “They’re different. You know how I haven’t had a visitor in a while, that men these days aren’t beholden to our magic? But suddenly, there they are, by my river ... they’re older, they’re not infants, but somehow they are still innocent.” She pours soy sauce into her mami, brooding. “The river cannot wash their stains away. It runs clear, not dark. They aren’t moving on to the next place. What have you observed?”
Lumabat chews through a giant siomai. Although neither of them will admit it, the strange textures of mortal food are rather delightful. “Their dreams are very brutal,” he says. “All red and black, very vivid. Very loud. They float up to me, as violent almost as the journey I took to the heavens—it’s mesmerizing.” He takes a sip of 7-Up. “And the sky is full of smoke, though whether that’s from the traffic or gunshots, it’s hard to say.”
She frowns at him. He sighs. “All right, all right. Let’s wait until the sun goes down, and I’ll show you. But I warn you, it’s not very pleasant.”
They pass the afternoon walking through the tiangge at 168, and Mebuyen palms a pair of pearl necklaces that she thinks Babygirl and Adriana might like. She has nothing to pay with, so she merely takes their essence and memory, humming to herself. Lumabat buys a metal keychain in the shape of a kampilan.
As dark approaches, Lumabat takes her hand, and they walk past Divisoria, drifting up to the corrugated rooftops of Barangay 19. They land on the steel and rust, and wait. Mebuyen feels a change in the air. The city is growing electric, and when she opens her mouth to breathe in, she tastes fear.
Scene A: A masked person on a motorbike rides into a subdivision. Outside his house, a man sits on a plastic chair, smoking a cigarette and rubbing circles around his exposed belly. The masked person stops in front of the man, and the man stands in alarm. The masked person trains a handgun on this man and shoots once, twice. The man falls, hand still on his belly now covered in blood. The masked person tosses a sign by the body: Drug pusher ako. Two children playing one street over scurry for their houses, not even screaming, just running, running as fast as they can.
Scene B: A woman is yelling at her man, who laughs at her while taking down the laundry, in the narrow crevasse between their house and the neighbors’. Two men storm in, wearing masks, yelling a name. The man raises his hands. Says, “Don’t shoot!” They tell him he’s on their list, they ask him to deny it. He turns, counter-clockwise, towards his woman. He takes a step, they scream at him not to run, he doesn’t run, a gun goes off. The woman drops to her knees, as if she has been struck, but no—it’s only his blood, as she pulls him onto her lap, as she wails like something being slaughtered.
Scene C: A boy is holding a wooden carton with cigarettes and mints and packets of Granny Goose chips. He is no longer selling. He is on his way home. He walks with his head down, his slippers slapping the asphalt. When he sees the policemen waiting for him he freezes to the spot. The police approach him. They handcuff him; one seizes his arms, the other grabs the scruff of his shirt. They proceed down four streets, to an alleyway that smells of garbage and shit. The boy cries the whole time. The boy says please. The boy asks why. The first policeman, more heavyset, puts a gun in the boy’s hand and tells him to run. He does not run. Instead, he falls to his knees. The first man gestures to the second man, who shakes his head, slightly. The first man raises his gun and fires, and the boy collapses. They leave something next to his broken body before they depart—a small bag with white powder.
“Why are their lives so cheap?” Mebuyen is trembling; the words are spoken into her fists, balled at her mouth.
Lumabat is quiet.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” Mebuyen says. Lumabat nods. He holds her elbow, gently, as they find their way back to Carriedo Station, the streets now mostly empty.
Mebuyen inhales. She smells the salt off the backs of men who have worked for decades only to die like small animals, and children who go to sleep at night barely expecting tomorrow. She smells the desperation in a grandmother’s twined fingers, praying for her grandchildren to return, to survive. The tang of a woman afraid of what she might find when she goes home, an acidity that spikes in her armpits and the nape of her neck.
There are too many of them, like grains of rice. It’s more than her breasts can nurse and her heart can hold.
“It’s good to see you, manong,” she says, patting Lumabat’s cheek, a small sign of affection that is unusual for them.
He returns the gesture, says, “Would that I could intercede. But alas—it is no longer my time.”
He returns to his sky, and she sinks down to her world. She does not go to her house immediately. Instead, she stands in the river for a long time, wondering when she stopped knowing how to cry.
The boy turns up the next day. He starts his story almost as soon as she sees him—after he stops gawking at her. He tells it in a breathless rush as she takes him to her hut. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she already knows.
He finishes with, “I wanted to be a policeman, ma’am. I wanted it so badly. Since I knew I couldn’t become a ninja like Naruto, it was my one and only goal. I was going to protect everyone. I was going to be astig, and fight the bad guys, and wear a cool uniform. I studied so hard for it. Honor student po ako.” He gulps, swipes at his eyes. “I still want it, even if I know I can’t ever be. Even if that happened. That’s crazy, isn’t it? I’m crazy. My head’s broken.”
“No, it’s not,” Mebuyen says gruffly. She palms the top of his skull, whole beneath her hand, and kisses his salty forehead.
JM cannot face his mother. She might see the welt under his eye where he was struck by Sir Marco. She might ask him why his boss would do such a thing, and he would have no answer. My hands shook. I didn’t say no, but I didn’t fire my gun, either. It felt wrong. It was wrong. I think it was wrong. She calls to him from where she is ironing his shirts, asks him how his day went. He says he’s tired, that he’s going to take a bath.
Seated on his narrow bed, he tries to look at nothing. Instead he finds his eye drawn, again and again, to the diploma hanging on his wall. The Philippine National Police Academy hereby confers upon Juan Miguel G. Pulag the degree of Bachelor of Science in Public Safety, with Secondary Honors. The gothic font, sharp letters spelling out his name, always made him proud. It told a grand story, of a boy from a barrio and his mother, her hands raw from washing clothes, yes, you’re familiar with that story, it moves your heart on Sundays or in the right Globe Telecom ad, it’s a story of inspiration. Because he made it. Against all odds, against the estranged and womanizing father, the so-so grades in elementary, the looming garbage mountain that formed the backdrop of JM’s childhood—he finished high school, he finished his training, he became a policeman, like he always wanted to. How Nanay wept on graduation day, her lips quivering as she fastened the medallion to his shirt. And, a few weeks later, with his first professional fee, how he had treated her to a meal at Aristocrat, even going so far as to order overpriced Coke from the menu.
As he looks at the certificate, a stain appears at the corner and creeps across, slow and inexorable, like the trickles of blood beneath his victims. Not his victims—the victims. He is not victimizing anyone. He’s upholding justice. He’s carrying out the orders of his president. They’re supposed to eliminate every last one of them; he understands this, so he is mystified by the pain in his gut, the way he blinks repeatedly because there is no stain, that’s impossible. He stands and walks over to the certificate. The parchment is clean, dull cream protected by the cheap frame from National Bookstore.
He turns to the mirror on the opposite side of the room and touches the puffed skin beneath his eye.
“Sir,” he says aloud. “Sir, there are other ways to do this.”
He doesn’t sound convinced, even to himself.
Over dinner, Nanay comments on his eye—of course she notices it beneath the band-aid. He tells her some overly rushed commuter struck him with his elbow in the LRT. She nods, because she cannot fathom him lying to her.
The boy’s name is Romuel. He’s a bit makulit, but painfully earnest. Mebuyen overhears him and Babygirl telling each other dirty jokes, and rolls her eyes. They chase each other around the river, holding Adriana’s hands as they splash in the water. They swing her between them on counts of one-two-three-wheeeee!
Romuel is invested in the mystery of his death—in what it could mean. He wonders whether it can change things, and it shifts the peace of their days. Aren’t people talking about it on Facebook? Twitter? Insta? Won’t someone have to pay? Babygirl is empathetic. Adriana is fascinated. “Because it can’t just keep happening,” Romuel pronounces. He’s drawing a gun in the soil with a stick, three dead bodies next to it: a girl, a boy, a woman. Self-portrait of a slaughter. He is not afraid to think about it. “It has to stop somehow. I think. If I was strong and old I would stop it.”
“I don’t know. I would definitely do something. Especially if I was a policeman.” He shades in the pools of blood.
“But the police killed us,” Adriana mutters. She pokes more holes into her sketch-body with a finger.
“I know that! Stupid girl!” Romuel springs to his feet, throws his stick down, scuffs his own drawing with his foot. Adriana bursts into tears. Romuel walks away.
Babygirl wraps her arms around Adriana and rocks her. “Let’s not fight. None of us are wrong. We’re not wrong.”
Romuel walks ten paces, turns around, walks back, scratching the side of his face. He apologizes to Adriana. Offers to draw her SpongeBob.
Mebuyen watches all this from a short distance away, sucking on her cheeks. She pats one of her breasts absent-mindedly, and thinks about human pain. Does anything make it worth it? Do they gain something, from feeling the world, feeling everything as if it were fresh and raw?
The little maya bird roots around in her hair before delivering Lumabat’s message: Is there a boy named Romuel with you now? He’s all over the news. They’re asking for justice. They’re speaking his name, on the streets, on the web. They’re chanting his name.
Mebuyen closes her eyes. She mouths their names; tries not to think of the countless others she has let go of, will let go.
It’s Romuel who asks, over dinner one night, “Why can’t we move on?”
Mebuyen figured this time would come. She doesn’t admit that some part of her was hoping she might never be asked. The other two put down their utensils, and look expectant. Mebuyen stands and beckons, warns them not to let go of each other. They link hands, and with the steely determination of an old woman who has felt fury and sorrow in endless cycles for eternity, Mebuyen walks from her world into that of dreamers. She rips right into the darkness so that it bleeds rainbow ribbons around them. She knows who she is searching for. When she finds him, he is curled up into himself, already shivering.
Juan Miguel Pulag wakes up in a dirty alleyway. An old, flabby woman in a duster, with monstrously frizzy hair, is staring him down. There’s a greenish tint to her skin, and he cannot help but notice that her breasts are enormous. He knows this is inappropriate, but that’s just a tangential thought; he’s mostly preoccupied with the three figures behind her. A little girl in a SpongeBob Squarepants sando; a beautiful drag queen in what could be a prom dress; and a boy with an impish smile, though the mischief doesn’t reach his eyes. There’s regret, instead. And a growing ember of what might be rage.
JM’s eyes move slowly from one to the other. His chest spasms.
He scrambles to his feet, tries to run. The little girl scurries and blocks his path. Her blood all over her grandmother’s shirt. He remembers her name, and vomits into the shit-smelling concrete.
“I don’t think this is only your fault,” the old woman says, “But you have to apologize, just the same. Then the river will start flowing again.”
“Oh, is he the one who did it? Sayang. He’s cute pa naman.” The drag queen walks up to him, inspecting his face, and he backs against the wall, sweating. Are we pigs, that you can treat us like this?
“The entirety of this is bigger than him, and carried by many, of course. But he’s one of the few I can get through to.” The old woman comes closer, and he screams, unable to help himself.
“Stay back!” he shouts. “I’m police! I’m trained! I don’t want to hurt you!”
“Then don’t,” she says curtly. “I don’t wish you harm, either.”
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he stammers. He can feel every drop of sweat sliding down his back. He is trying to recite a Hail Mary and not lose his mind at the same time. “We’re trying to clean up the Philippines. They’re wrong, they’re hurting our society, I want—I want my future children to be safe.”
He pulls his gun out. She gazes at it warily. “Put that down.”
He raises it.
“Manang Em!” The boy steps in front of the old woman, his arms spread out. He glares at JM. “You will not hurt her.” His eyes are a mirror: that’s definitely rage, burning in them, but grounded in the unshakeable knowledge that what he’s doing is right. He looks so much like a boy JM recognizes that his finger trembles where it’s hooked against the trigger.
“I’ll be all right, Romuel,” the old woman says. “He can’t hurt me.” The boy moves aside, but stays close to her. Protecting her. As a man should.
Romuel. Romuel de Vera. Romuel de Vera, seventeen years old, an honor student. He wanted to be a policeman. His parents loved him very much. How do you sleep at night knowing you killed an innocent? Hashtag Stop the Killings. Hashtag Justice for Romuel.
JM retches into his closed mouth. He swallows.
“I don’t see how the mountains of bodies is cleanup,” the old woman says. “I don’t see how nightmares is your reward for something good. Where is your mercy? Where is your sense of doing what’s right—what one human would do? I am not human, and even I know.”
In her eyes he can see beyond himself, to some space where there is a small boy who wants to be a policeman, wants his mom to stop scrubbing her hands raw, wants his dad to see what a fucking fool he was for leaving them, wants to do the right thing, always. There are other ways to do this. But how can it be wrong, when everyone else is doing it? How did he become this? The boy next to her is the boy from his memories, and the boy next to her is dead.
The boy is dead. JM killed that boy.
“Stop,” he says, weakly. She reaches out her hand to him.
“It’s okay, anak. You have a voice. You have hands. You have your life. You don’t have to fight anymore. You just have to open your eyes, and see.”
He rests his finger on the trigger.
Her eyes narrow. “Don’t,” she says. “You’ll regret it.”
He fires. Quick and fluid, she wraps her hand around the barrel. The gun explodes; the bullet blasts into his shoulder, and pieces of it strike his face. He howls with pain.
“No!” He screams, but it’s no longer the old lady, it’s just his own Nanay, poking her head into his room with concern. He’s wet, he realizes—he has pissed in his sleep, the first time since he was a toddler. He gasps, he can’t get enough air. His vision swims. His insides are on fire. Nanay comes over, carefully, and sits on his bed. She gazes at him with love and worry. He cracks. He cries into his hands. “No, no no no,” he repeats.
She rests her hand on his shoulder, rubbing up and down. He leans into her and cries like he will never stop.
But he does. The next day, he takes a temporary leave from the precinct, and wonders what to do with his free hands, with the blood still lingering on them. How to rebuild? How to revive that boy, give him the justice he deserves? There are no answers, there is nothing easy; but JM is tired, at last, of running away. Tired as well of standing still and nodding along. He has to live. He can at least do that with his eyes open.
There is a dark bruise on his shoulder that aches even at the gentlest touch.
There is no sun in the underworld, but the sky is bright. Mebuyen feeds them a last meal, as delicious as she can make it. Looking out at the river, she sees a flock of birds circling it, a deep brown cluster—and she hears the rush of water, at last. Her heart is relieved, but she is wise enough to recognize the tinge of loneliness beneath it. Well. There will always be new ones. And these three, they may lose their names and the exact bodies they moved through in the land of men, but they will not lose their essence in the next place. This is the hope Mebuyen clings to, for everyone who passes through her town.
So: the ritual. She takes them to the river, and they stand in the shallow waters.
“You’ll need to stoop a little,” she tells Babygirl, then Romuel. The only one not too tall for her is Adriana.
She scoops water in her hands, and pours it over them, one at a time. First their joints, then their heads. As the water runs down their bodies, the darkness of their pain trickles out, seeping into the river as a smoky stain, blending into the gray current. “Don’t cry,” she snorts. Babygirl flicks water at her.
“I don’t want to go,” Babygirl says.
Mebuyen has spent eternity not being soft—not since the first babies came to her, with their wide eyes and their sweet puckered mouths, shortly after her quarrel with Lumabat. She tsks. She says not to worry; she doesn’t know exactly how men experience it, but she suspects there’s a lot of family on the other side, maybe even sisig and bibingka or whatever it is Babygirl likes to eat. Definitely there is endless rice. “And you can be who you are there,” she says. “The way you are here.”
This seems to cheer Babygirl up. Sometimes it’s the oldest ones that are most like children.
“All right,” Mebuyen says. “Let’s get going.”
“Wait,” Romuel says. She glances at him, wondering if she missed a spot, and promptly gets caught in a tight hug. “Salamat, manang,” he whispers. He squeezes her tightly; she is surprised by his strength, then not. Her arms quiver as she wraps them around him.
“Me too!” Adriana chirps, then they’re all pressed in tightly together. Mebuyen is never cold, but right here, she feels warm. They hold each other for a long time.
“I’ll miss you,” Adriana says.
Mebuyen breaks the circle. “Yes, yes. Now let’s go.”
They wade through the river in silence, until Babygirl starts singing.
Huwag kang matakot. Di mo ba alam nandito lang ako? Sa iyong tabi. Di kita pababayaan kailanman.
They reach the part where the river is met with a canopy of dark trees. Mebuyen kisses them all on the cheek, and lets them go. They continue down the river, holding hands, waiting for the light to change. Not once do they look back.
Author's Note: I provided this translation of Filipino words used in the story to help provide nuance and context. It was my suggestion to do it, and I'm glad SH agreed!
bomba - naked
anak - child
po - this is a polite sentence modifier, used when speaking to older people
yata - I think/maybe
tinola - chicken broth
Nanay - mother
lugaw - rice porridge
Nasamid lang po ako - I swallowed my food wrong (choked slightly on my food)
Manang - term used to refer to an older woman
latundan - a kind of banana
Hay naku - an expression/exclamation that typically means “Oh no” or “Oh dear”
yun nga - as expected/of course
kasi - because
medyo - a little
bigla - suddenly
Tama na - that’s enough
na - a measure, used mostly as ‘already,’ ex. Stop na (give it up already)
pala - it turns out
Nag-English pa siya - He even used English (the connotation here is that it’s “showing off”)
Putangina niyo - fuck you
maong - denim
tiangge - bazaar/bargain market
kampilan - a type of traditional Filipino sword
ako - I am, ex. "Drug pusher ako" - I am a drug pusher
Manong - term used to refer to an older man
astig - cool
barrio - province
makulit - mischievous
Sayang - too bad
He’s cute pa naman - What a waste that he's cute
sisig - Filipino pork dish
bibingka - claypot coconut rice cake
Salamat - thank you
Huwag kang matakot. Di mo ba alam nandito lang ako? Sa iyong tabi. Di kita pababayaan kailanman. - Don’t be afraid. Don’t you know I’m right here with you? By your side. I will never leave you alone. (Lyrics from Huwag Kang Matakot by Eraserheads. The translation is mine; give it a listen!)