Fiction by Quintin Pastrana, Set During Peñafrancia in the Time of Darkness
ILLUSTRATOR Bianca Papa
Richie stood by the water's edge, and took off his mask at the foot of the crimson bridge marking the halfway point of their escape. The little Lumad girl was still asleep, cooled with the half-rolled down window, hidden in the blanket-lined recesses of the wagon he borrowed from Uncle Leon back in Davao.
As the brisk breeze receded with the warmth of the Eastern Visayan morning, he looked back one more time at the lapping waves and steadied himself for the gathering storm.
He entered the car, steeled himself for the checkpoint, and with the rolled down window said ‘Maayong Buntag’ to the man holding the armalite rifle and sweating through his face shield. Between his mental face palm and the Sergeant’s response, it seemed like an eternity as the man looked inside and saw the child. ‘Maupay nga adlaw, pasensya’ – nag-ro-roadtrip kami papunta kay Lola sa Maynila.’ Fumbling enough to disguise his Arrneow accent, the soldier took one more look around and as he faced the boot of the car, got startled when Gandalf his stowaway mongrel stood up in half-growl. The officer stepped back and motioned for them to speed off as the phalanx of travelers piled up behind them.
It had been a relatively pleasant six-hour, non-stop drive from Tibungco to Surigao, filled with foliage and lakes he’d barely make out from the plane that first took him on his journey to Mindanao several months back; the pain on his arm from the newly minted vaccine keeping him awake on that early morning flight. Now reaching the sunset ferry, Richie welcomed a tinge of levity on the first leg of his drive. In contrast with the dread he’d felt picking her up with the hastily borrowed beat-up station wagon he christened Sandra Bulok in honor of his ‘Birdbox’ heroine, not knowing how they would last the trip North.
Tita Bel, his homestay mother, woke him up earlier than his 5 a.m. start for English classes at his adopted village over three miles away. Tibungco was so congested and prone to more lockdowns with homes of teeming families, that he was forced to look for a dwelling place in the next settlement.
With little else than a swollen knapsack with lived-in jeans, Uniqlo dri-fits, tsinelas, his gadgets, the JVP binder, the new vaccine booster prescriptions, he began his gap year of service. This was a community he'd trained for and knew by briefs and reports from the volunteer before him, and gradually got to know with a reciprocated caution over his first few months testing his newly-minted Bisaya and lesson plans.
All of that changed when shots rang past midnight. Richie thought these were the usual overripe mangoes dropping on the yero in his little sitio, or distant thunderclaps from the oncoming monsoon season that would mark the second half of his assignment. Maybe it might have been the usual pasaway liquor ban-curfew violator getting his due from Davao’s finest. But as he began stirring from the screams of the usually unflappable Tita Bel, he then realized that things had changed for everyone.
Freed from the checkpoint, the wagon slowly traversed the crimson marvel that was San Juanico Bridge. Richie breathed a sigh of awe and relief, disinfecting his hands while steadying the wheel. In the silence of the morning’s arrival, a Bach concerto was playing in his head, him humming along as they drove gently over cantilevered steel and water. The constancy of the bulletproof diesel engine rattling blended in with his senses embracing everything he had seen, and the mission he’d been placed into.
Soon, the verdant topography of Leyte and much of Mindanao, the azure sea in between would give way to a harsher, forbidding landscape. Into their Samar leg, the wagon’s air-conditioning was no match for the garish sun as they made their way through parched, winding hills. Soon, the girl would wake up as Richie’s newly-minted driving skills met the motley road’s resistance. The novelty of this maiden, cross-country journey began to wear off. His last and longest road trip being the Alabang – Loyola Heights carpool shift, and in an automatic SUV before the university and virus forced everyone off campus.
The wagon’s body let out more frequent noises as it wound through the brown hillsides and scattered kubos and the occasional livestock. Gandalf, panting with the heat at the rear, jumped into the passenger seat and woke up the little girl, unstartled as she welcomed him into her arms, and hugged him until they both settled back into the rhythms of Richie’s driving and fell asleep once more.
With the quiet resuming and arid landscapes darkened by the looming clouds, he looked forward once more for signs to the next port and checkpoint. He knew he was close; his smartphone resumed vibrating, pent up messages coming through within the range of the cellular towers.
We’re near the main town then, he thought, as he glanced at the crumpled national highway map he used in place of the Waze-less network coverage and worries of leaving a digital footprint.
After he stopped to pee against the hillside brush, before the city came into view, he unlocked his phone to scroll for messages. They were from the Program Director in Manila.
NKQSJ: Where are you?
Me: Sorry am OK, reached Samar, near port
NKQSJ: Calling you now
The phone rang and he picked up right outside the car, ever mindful of the silent girl.
“Richie, will make this quick.”
“They know. No time to waste. The Provincial Superior’s reached across the spectrum, a Supernumer will meet you in Calbayog.”
“Wow, desperate times, Father Noli…” Richie liked to tease his liberal Loyola mentors for veering leftward and off the deep end, versus his parents’ Opus Dei roots, with him waffling towards the middle.
“No time for jokes, kiddo.” Fr. Noli’s voice grew stern. “Listen. St. Peter and Paul Cathedral… third confessional to the right of the altar.”
“Father, how much danger, how much time?”
“A couple of days, maybe three. Your Uncle Leon tells me that’s just enough to get her into Manila, into our shuttered campus before we secure passage. I’ve had the Provincial speak to the Ambassador as well. He knows what to do. Shut your phone and show up before sunset this Tuesday at the latest.”
“Father Noli, will bring her in safely.” He could sense trepidation from his mentor’s voice. After all, in this whole scheme of things, he wasn’t the first choice for the original assignment. Richie barely made the cut for the Jesuit Volunteer program, which aimed to get the crème de la crème of his peers off into the boonies to fight for social justice upon graduation. He remembered how Fr. Noli had told him after he received his acceptance letter how he overruled the selection committee because he knew ‘God would make a good example of you when the time came.’ That private debt had now come due, this memory seared inside him as the dropped call. The abrupt promise made him want to relieve himself again, after which he shut the car door and sped off into the town.
When Tita Bel woke him up two days ago, he’d been struggling with this dream he’s had for months. Wearing a three-piece suit, he fixes the knot on his Hermes necktie, a graduation gift from his girlfriend, while preening at the glass entrance of a skyscraper. He picks up his grandfather’s briefcase, fixed his face shield to pry loose the cowlicks of his hair, and enters a high-speed elevator. As soon as Richie gets in, he’s met by an elevator operator with shiny blue eyes, who proceeds to remove her mask as they speed upward. His breathing quickens as he recognizes the Virgin. Only every time it’s a different version of her like the ones he’d see in the different murals and grottos around the world. That night, she was in plain clothes—distressed jeans and a button down—no less divine and unnerving. And as with all midpoints of the dream, there she would be, smiling: asking him where he’d like to go, and in each instance he would rattle off a different destination, a different part of his life, past of future that he’d like to change or witness. This time, he stumbles; and for the first time, shrugs and says: "you choose, my Lady."
Tita Bel slapped him on his exposed cheek, peeled him away from fetal position, and as soon as he opened his eyes, he thought he was back in another dream, wanting to wake up again. She told him Manong Ben had been shot dead in his house in the middle of the night, back in one of the shanties of Tibungco. The police had barricaded the tiny house, and one of the usiseros started screaming about planting drugs by the body. Rushing from next door to his aid, Manong Ben’s sister too, was gunned down. That left Fatima, who had followed her to the scene, running from her dying mother, across the makeshift football pitch had Richie set up months ago, into the darkness and Imam Ali’s arms.
“Dong! Dong! Mata dong mata dayun!!”
“Ha? Ngano Tita? Unsay nahitabo!?”
“Gipatay si Aling Sorhaiya bag-o lang gyud! Gipusil siya sa mga pulis!”
“Bakit naman po Tita, anong kelangan nating gawin?” He couldn’t translate to Bisaya in his stupor.
“Dong! Pagdali na! Pag-impake ug adto sa siyudad kay init pa diri!”
Even with the light streaming into the homestay, they still heard police sirens wailing, almost nearing. Tita Bel and Richie packed what they could into his bag. As they made their way out of the house, Imam Ali was waiting outside in his tricycle, with the skinny nine-year old girl wrapped in a blanket in the sidecar. Assalamu Alaikum he said to his friend and fellow football coach to the Lumad children of the village, as he squeezed in after hugging Tita Bel, promising her he would take care of the little girl. After they settled into the tricycle, Imam Ali sped to the main highway and into the outskirts of the compound of his Uncle Leon where Ali told them what had happened.
Uncle Leon, a true Mindanawon, U.S. balikbayan, whose genteel family belonged to the original settlers in Davao, wasted no time; he knew the drill. Knowing the President all too well, he hurriedly packed supplies into the wagon—a sleeping bag, bananas from the plantation, a jug of water, his daughter’s old Adarna story books. And, for good measure, Gandalf: the Weimaraner-Aspin mutt who took to Richie every time he'd visited, who was up and about with the unannounced visitors, and now sniffing and licking the little girl’s face. She seemed startled with a dog of a size she’d likely never seen, and looked like she wanted to scream, but didn't. It was then Imam Ali and Richie looked at each other and realized the trauma of the shootings had rendered her unable to speak at all.
As Imam Ali tucked her in the back seat, Gandalf jumped into the wagon’s boot, and Uncle Leon locked the door, handed the keys to Richie. He whispered instructions in his ear, telling him he would make the arrangements with his embassy friends, not to worry. He then gave him a hug that more than made up for over a year of withdrawn contact and protocols. Catching his breath after lifting Richie off the ground, he said thank you, and to Imam Ali: ‘Shukran, Assalamu Alaikum.’
‘Hafidaka Allah, my friend, and our jewel’s protector.’ Ali embraced, shook his hand, and placed his palm on his heart. And with that, they were off and headed up North.
The Calbayog heat was overwhelming, befitting its name, as the wagon teetered into the Cathedral’s parking grounds. Gandalf jumped off the rear as soon as he lifted the door, and he gently lifted the girl, now crying from the dizziness, heat and hunger from the tortuous drive, with him trying in vain to help her put on a mask.
The Cathedral’s main doors were closed, but they snaked around until they found the side entrance. There he asked Gandalf to stay outside and watch, and they both entered, passing the alcoves, and into the main chamber with its ornate whitewashed altar. He left the Lumad, Muslim-raised girl by the first row, keeping his eyes sideglanced on her as he entered the confessional, with his heart racing again.
He heard breathing on the other side of the panel.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
“Let’s dispense with that and get right to it… They’re going to intercept you in Quezon, so there’s been a change in plans.
“You’ll find an Avanza on the other side of the Church, with all you need to cross into Luzon—only until Albay—and we will take it from there.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Not quite, but I’m from the same Circle as your Dad. I was there at your baptism, I’ve have watched you grow from a good distance, Richie. There’s much to be sanctified with your work, your life. But I have prayed and trust you are where the Lord has intended you to be. I’ve let Nestor and Marilen know you are in good hands. God’s hands: We’ve asked Saint Jose Maria to pray to Our Lady and guide you home, hijo. And if–no when —you make it, and finish your duties here, come see me. Our community will have a have a safe, sacred place for you.
“Uhmm, Tito, may I know if…” Suddenly, the booth was silent and he could hear footsteps fade away from him.
He stayed in the confessional a minute longer, in a cold sweat. It had been over a half a decade since he actually did the sacrament, he thought, as he tried to close his eyes in prayer. Suddenly, the pang of memory came back, a grade school retreat when the priest, face-to-face, had asked him questions he thought too personal, and started placing his hands on Richie’s knee, with him frozen in disgust and fear until enough rage seeped into him to stand up, and run out of the room. He opened his eyes, slapped his own face and shook his head to bury the memory, only to be welcomed with the fear of wondering what would become of the girl as they got closer to Manila. And, if they were blessed enough to make it, what lay in store for him afterwards.
When he emerged from the confessional box to look for her, he panicked when he saw the front row was empty, with the Cathedral doors now opened by the sacristans. He walked frantically across the pews, the saints’ statues; and finally, heard Gandalf barking at a stern elderly, veiled matron, while he stood in between them and the little girl who was looking up at the Virgin Mary, both of them smiling.
With Fatimah and Gandalf now snuggling safely in the back of their new ride, Richie started the engine and found next to his seat, a mint analog Nokia phone, a neatly folded map, and a sheaf of papers, one bearing a DSWD stamp paper clipped to a laminated IATF ID. He didn’t bother to examine them, crammed them into his backpack compartment, adjusted the stiffer seats, and drove off.
As his thoughts settled from the days past, he cheered himself up with the wry consolation that he was starring in a Wes Anderson film filled with papists of all persuasions, with its own Society of Crossed Keys working behind the scenes as they tried to complete their haphazard journey. This eased the languor of the midday sun as they reached the port and boarded the FastCat to Matnog without any resistance, with the arrastre mindlessly shuffling through their documents, asking him if he was related to the ferry company’s owner, to which he smiled and made up a white lie just to ease their embarkation. It was almost too easy, until the young man aimed his infrared thermometer at them and startled Fatimah, practically crying and he aimed it at them one at a time, and calming down as it beeped out its reading.
Just like the first RORO, and not wanting to leave Gandalf on the deck, Richie rolled down the tinted windows ever so slightly, enough for the sea air to waft in, and prying eyes to not bother. He climbed up to the main cabin, keeping his head down mostly, and scoping out the passengers while stocking up on water, chips and sweets, after realized he had left the rest of the bananas in the wagon back by the Church.
He then remembered Uncle Leon’s last bit of advice as he patted his bald spot with his pajama sleeves before waving goodbye:“This administration’s henchmen have grown plodding and clumsy, and this gives you enough time. But they will figure things out. You’ve seen what they can do.”
Uncle Leon knew all too well of the pogroms that had begun in his hometown and metastasized across the archipelago and into the world’s umbrage. “Be prepared to cover your tracks and change course. Pray with moving feet. I trust you will know what to do if it has come to that.”
As Richie reclined his seat to reach out to pat Gandalf’s head, with hers lain on the hound’s tummy, he stroked their foreheads as a way to relax and lull them to sleep on this last ferry ride to the mainland. He reached back to fish out one of the books from his cousin’s old stash, and chuckled at the irony when he looked at the cover of one of this childhood staples. Still teary-eyed with fear and comic relief, Richie read the story to the half-sleeping girl: “Fatimah, I present to you an all-time classic, Digong Dilaw… “
Richie was jolted from another dream. This time, he found himself on one of those empty ships, wearing a soiled infantry uniform, almost as if he were right in that scene in Dunkirk, with the invisible enemy forces closing in, one sniper shot clanging on the rusted hull, aerial bombs detonating one at a time amid the squadron’s descent, the sirens blaring as the faceless bombers dived in to release its wrath on to him and his helpless companions. He looked around, all of them young and old, looking like mere civilians forced into ill-fitting, fetid uniforms; now at the shoreline, making their way to the boats that one by one were being picked off and gunned down by the invaders, until the larger explosions started coming nearer and nearer.
As he awoke, he saw the girl, her head now laying on his outstretched arm, switching places with his snoring dog. He fixed his gaze on her face, and wondered what it would be like to be a new father; having someone of his own flesh and blood come into the world, or taking someone like her as his own. How precious and delicate and urgent it would be to care for a child, to shield her from the growing ugliness that his nation had become with its leaders. And how this escape of a gap year would now have to be filled with real work, with a career to put food on the table, especially if he messed up enough to find himself raising her alone.
He remembered and reimagined his senior year, filling up the application forms for JVP at the emptied college cafeteria benches. He bragged then to his friends—all set or schlepping through Zoom interviews to break into the corporate world; or their hare-brained startups and "social enterprises"– that he would never sell soap like his older siblings, nor work as a cog in a capitalist machine. Richie even thought, more than once, of giving the Novitiate a go. He admired his Jesuit professors, and wanted the same respect and gravitas. But he buckled at the cost of giving up his comfort, his relationships, and the fear of a violent death like his namesake endured a decade ago in Cambodia. He sighed, not just with that fading choice, but also in thinking how stark a re-entry it would be after JVP to go back into the real world, with its post-pandemic constraints, let alone his girlfriend’s standard of living and pathway. She, too was on a gap year, but one spent in a fashion house in Paris, where she’d asked to take a non-exclusive break so they could scratch their itches and let the chips fall where they may till they both had to come back.
Next to that ambivalence and weary affection, his loyalty and fierce protection of the little girl were a touchstone, unshakeable, and the only thing that made sense that moment, this journey. Shaking his head, he opened his eyes once more and saw her looking at him as she placed her dark tiny hand on his forearm. A thought came to mind from his Netflix withdrawal symptoms, and he snickered as he began fancying himself as a post-millennial Mandalorian with a cryptic Yoda-esque creature whose survival held his future.
He tried to talk to the little girl in her native tongue, to coax a response, even after all the previous attempts during the first hundred kilometers of the trip failed.
For the first time since they had started the trip, when his eyes had been focused on the road and their narrowing surroundings, he looked into her eyes as the sea cradled them all in the molting sun.
“I will take care of you; I am your family. I will bring you to your new home."
And with his best efforts, trying to muster all he remembered from his language training:
“Panalipdan ka ako ug dili ka nako biyaan.”
Richie started tearing up as he realized he had never felt anything as pure and liberating, and at that moment, Fatimah embraced him just as the horn from the ferry signaled their approach to Luzon. The last time he had felt this way was when he had read Tolkien in high school, and as he dried his eyes, he allowed himself a bit of a smile as he felt and fancied himself a Ranger escorting and protecting a little creature who bore the burden of devastating power, this time the truth of memory that lay locked in the chamber of her frightened heart.
Richie breathed a sigh of relief at the port checkpoint, when the junior officer clearly famished and listless with the weight of his uniform and added PPE, stared blankly at their newly minted IDs and inoculation cards. Even Gandalf smiled back and then sulked back, sensing another long drive. They haven’t caught on yet, he thought to himself, but shook his head once more to clear the dizziness from the ferry ride, and to stop himself from falling into a false sense of comfort.
As he shifted into second gear, he heard a loud beep, his first message on the Nokia analog:
Unknown: “Follow the roadmap and drive all the way to Legazpi, and come to Small Talk Café no later than 9pm. Stay awake, and aware – no stopovers, and do not call anyone else. God Bless.”
Me: “Noted Tito, will do. AMDG+”
Unknown: “Quit that…. Godspeed.”
He estimated the Sorsogon to Albay drive to be about over two hours, and just enough time to make it. They had enough daylight to cross the main highway and into the border.
The Avanza had a functioning stereo so he turned it on to stay awake, while feeling connected to the world. After switching through numerous stations, he settled on one with a 70s medley and its slothful DJ. He cheered up when he heard Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan, then a back to back of Kalapana and Kenny Rankin, almost as if the DJ played them in alphabetical order, and just like his father’s CD and record collection. He imagined a time growing up when that music filled the airwaves, without the now commonplace announcements of drug deaths, Beijing’s latest encroachment, and how cases were popping back up despite the latest wave of vaccines from the Mainland. and how innocent the times were then.
At about 6 p.m., with the sun setting, the next radio host opened the set with the news section, and the next few minutes unnerved him with the headlines and developments. He could make out some of the words in Bicolano, enough to know they were talking about his little girl, that she was missing, the lone possible witness to the latest murder in the name of the never-ending War on Drugs. The radio anchor stressed authorities were launching a major search across checkpoints, and that she might have been kidnapped by sinister leftist forces out to destabilize the government. He switched off the radio, fearing he would hear his name announced as an accomplice. How could they pinpoint these things? I’d been careful enough. Uncle Leon would never turn me in even with his ties to his old friend; he thought to himself as he noticed and traced Mount Mayon’s sinewy presence in the darkness, almost like Mordor and its all but buried, seething anger.
With the palpable silence in the car, he heard one of their tummies growl as they made their way into Legazpi. He finally found the Café after asking the tricycle drivers on the main avenue, and at the corner of the old Evangelical church, he parked the car at the Café.
Finding the place half-empty, they easily found a table a healthy distance away from any prying diners. With the cash his Supernumerary guardian left him, he made sure to order the pinangat, and Bicol Express served with pasta (no pork since he moved to Mindanao), and their new special, sizzling bulalo, reminding the waiter to save the hollowed bone as a reward for Gandalf, waiting in the Avanza behind a half-rolled window. Just as he was about to pour the girl a glass of citrus cooler, he felt a firm tap on his other arm.
“May I join you?” Richie shuddered and didn’t want to look up.
The burly man in jeans and a leather jacket towered over them. He made his way across to the other side of the table and sat next to Fatimah, smiling as she chewed on the gabi leaves and shrimp bits Richie mixed in with her rice to dilute the spiciness of the laing. Petrified and comforted at the same time, he couldn’t place how familiar his eyes looked even with the leather mask concealing the rest of the man’s weathered face. When a stranger at the other table came over and picked up his hand to kiss it, he slumped back in his chair in relief.
“Your Eminence!” He couldn’t contain himself and almost chuckled as the little girl picked up the gesture and also took the old man’s hand and put his knuckles on her forehead as his other hand removes his protection.
“You made it, my friend. And in good time. You two are the most sought-after citizens these days, my friends tell me.” He looked at the girl and rubbed her button nose with his acorn of a thumb, and she let out a giggle.
“But Archbishop, why here? This is so public and dangerous given the circumstances?” Richie said, almost in half-whisper while looking around the room at the noisy diners.
He suddenly felt a fever coming on and lost his appetite for food and pleasantries.
“Sometimes, my son, you have to learn to hide in plain sight. In fact, we have very little by way of choice because they are looking for her, maybe you, and they’re waiting and possibly closing in.” His smile was betrayed by the seriousness in his darkened eyes.
“What options do I have, Sir? At the rate we’re going, our luck is going to run out. I don’t care about me, but… he looked at Fatimah, who was now looking back at him.
“You have come this far. And there is little left to do but to trust in Providence, and the grace of what happens next.”
“Sorry your Eminence, but this needs concrete action, a plan, and I don’t…” The Archbishop cut him off and smiled
“What is it your Jesuit mentors tell you? I know them well enough, they run a school near the Archdiocese and are always unashamed to give me a piece of their mind…” He laughed, as he cued the manager to settle the bill. “What’s the word… ‘Accompaniment’, yes, that’s the one. ‘Finding God in all things,’ even the sacred ordinary. Sounds familiar, right? Isn’t that what you have just done? And now we will do our share. You will leave in exactly eight minutes by the kitchen door. Your canine friend will join you after this is all over. And you, hija," pointing to Fatimah, now sleepy herself, "will come with me.”
He smiled again as the little girl gamely took his outstretched hand, and after putting on his mask, walked away only to stop to give his benediction to the manager and the remaining patrons who now recognized their visitor from Naga.
Richie was beside himself, angry and teary-eyed as he stayed put and realized how helpless he was. How his lessons on Levinas and Buber and Kant were all coming back in the face and vulnerability of this Other, this Lumad girl who shared neither his faith nor genes. And yet how he belonged to her. How tomorrow he could lose everything he held on to, including that hope and faith that got him this far. Feverish, he looked down, and started to close his strained eyes. He rubbed them with a used napkin, and right there uttered the mantra he remembered from back in high school:
“Mary, Queen of Heaven, bearer of Christ, please be a Mother to me, now.”
As a waitress guided him to the back area through the kitchen door, uniformed men took his elbow in the darkness as a black van screeched to a stop in front of them. The door slid open to reveal Archbishop Fuentebella, now dressed in formal garments, motioning them to come in.
Richie thought to himself as his eyes grew heavy, his forehead burning and his throat sore, how surreal but welcome this all felt. A year ago before submitting his JVP applications, his barkada all but mocked him for his sudden piety in the wake of the group’s collective debauchery and diatribes on the Church that he dipped into. All he could do was shrug his shoulders after being unable to defend the endless stream of sexual abuse and scandals unearthed by and threatening to consume the Pope himself. He shook of the feeling as he looked at the Archbishop, himself falling asleep in front by the driver’s side. And, in that unguarded moment, felt a sliver of warmth part of that strange, abiding spirit that all but led him to this temporary grace.
Richie woke up in an abandoned van, his clothes damp with the sweat of a fever broken in transit. The Archbishop, his retinue, and the little girl were nowhere to be found. He was at the foot of the darkened river, with a float approaching from the distance – that looked just like the shiny pagoda that carried the Lady of Penafrancia through the fluvial parade all those years until it stopped in the wake of the virus. With the absence and all that had gone since, he had almost forgotten that this weekend was about the time of festival of Ina. He shook his head at the thought, that it almost always coincided with the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law. And then, he came to realize that this very week 49 years ago was where a dictatorship had officially begun, and never really ended.
He saw the light growing, ever so faintly, but flickering stronger as it found form and approached him, as if floating on the river. His eyes traced the liminal space between the water and warm light, and saw Our Lady. She was hovering, right above the ripples, in full regalia, almost golden as the sun. She was smiling at him once more, almost as to tell him She knows all of it, and telling him to let all go. He fell on his knees, lay prostrate and let out all his tears, as he felt a hand softly touch his chin, lifting it so he could see. He was blinded and blanketed by this radiance. This peace wrapped in the glowing silence that he wanted to hold on to before he knew to wake up again, and he simply breathed it all and gazed into her knowing eyes.
He was startled as the van’s sliding door creaked open, and Archbishop Fuentebella was there in front of him in full regalia, motioning him to come forward. From afar he saw the voyadores approaching, the sinewy, ageless men from his childhood when he had first seen the Lady brought to the waters by these warriors of the faith.
“What are we doing here!?” Richie groaned as he rubbed his eyes once more, upset at his interrupted apparition, and his doubt-ridden fatigue.
“Ina wants to do a dry run since she hasn’t been back here for some time. And who are we to refuse, my son?” Richie looked down and saw the Archbishop holding the little girl’s hand as she waved the other at him, and he could see her gap-toothed smile in the moonlight by the riverbank where they were parked.
“We are all family, Richie, and our love and reach knows no boundaries. It’s all been taken care of from here, to our friends in Guam, and soon, her new home, where she will find her voice, tell her story, and through the Holy Spirit, speak truth to power. Dios mabalos, sakuyang aki”
All this time, Richie realized, silent battalions of the faithful, from lawyers, to diplomats, to customs agents, submarine captains, and State Department officers under the new White House occupant were working in unison, as if guided by the Virgin’s hand, or their love for Her. All he needed to do was bring her as far as he could humanly go. Then he remembered Fr. Noli’s first lecture, the day he showed up for orientation, how hope ‘whispers to you to take a step to meet the moment when things can turn for the better.’
The dusk-skinned girl looked at him, tried to say something; he couldn't make out the words and as she tried again, he embraced her and helped place her into the bosom of Ina, shrouded in cloudless moonlight. Fatimah curled into fetal pose, and the voyadores then nodded and formed a human chain around the Virgin of Peñafrancia. They pushed off with the pagoda as our Lady accompanied her into the estuary at San Miguel Bay and the submerged, waiting vessel that led to the Pacific.
The name ‘Fatimah’ rolled off his tongue one more time as he walked up the embankment, and back into the waiting darkness.
Quintin Pastrana is an energy entrepreneur, library builder, poet, and broadcaster. He was educated at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Georgetown, and the Ateneo. This story forms part of his upcoming book of short fiction, “Infieles: 12 Filipino Stories.”