The Miraculous Apparition

Sabong” by Fernando Cueto Amorsolo — Oil On Canvas — 72 x 92 cm

Fr. Perry — four-month pastor of the poor, before which he’d been promising theology student in the Holy Cross Institute in Rome, hailed by fellow students and professors alike as brilliant intellectual grandchild of and thereby genuine heir to Ratzinger, Guardini, and Gilson for theological positions he defended in innovative insightful though at times controversial and feather-ruffling articles he’d written at only twenty-four years old until he’d been called back by his bishop in the Philippines to work in one of the shadiest slums of Manila, home of poorest of the poor and nextdoor neighbor to richest of the rich in one of those comedic were it not so pitiable ironies of life that happen only in Philippine soil, as parish priest (a deceptive job description, as he would soon learn, for he’d not only be administrator of the most Holy Sacraments, but also confidant and comforter of pious old ladies, premature wiseman and unofficial town counselor second in veneration only to the barangay captain, settler of street brawls between irate jeepney drivers, almsgiver to all beggars who crossed his path, and even drinking companion (because, he reasoned, even Jesus drank with sinners and converted water to wine as his first miracle) on at least two occasions with the soybean pudding vendors, jeepney tricycle and pedicab drivers, sots, and pariahs of society) not because the bishop wanted to spite him or cut off his promising future as intellectual giant of not only theology but perhaps also general culture, but because of Fr. Perry’s intrinsic and rather too Calvinistic and therefore self-flagellant notion of duty (the same notion that would make him pour hours of undistracted and monastic and fearfully feverish study into his dense theological manuals) which the bishop knew he had and therefore took advantage of, knowing full well that among the neophyte priests he’d sent to Rome to study theology before their ordination, Fr. Perry would be the most willing (or at least the least likely to say no) to take up this unpopular post — found his postlunch daily smoke on the bench outside the parochial residence disturbed midcigarette by the sweaty and frantic arrival of Poy the tricycle driver. He gabbled now with violent gesticulations in his crude Tagalog as Fr. Perry listened, watching the cigarette with bitter regret as it cackled on the dust with a slow burning tobacco death.

“Wait wait wait,” interrupted Fr. Perry. “Something doesn’t sound quite right to me.”

“What part of it?”

“All of it.”

“But I’m telling you, Father. Me and my wife saw it with our own eyes.”

“Wait. See if I heard you right. When your rooster started to feed — ”

“Finished feeding.”

“ — finished feeding, the remaining grains on the feedbowl formed — you say — an uncanny resemblance to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“Not an uncanny resemblance, Father. It was! was! the Blessed Virgin. Come to greet us right before our very eyes.”

“Right.”

“Was!”

“Indeed. Indeed. And what made you presume it was the Blessed Virgin?”

“You could make out the form of the mantle. And the eyes, Father. The eyes. They just looked at me there, most lovingly and tenderly and motherly, as she would have in any other picture you’d see in church. No. There was no mistaking it.”

“Ah,” the priest said. His eyebrows furrowed in deep thought. He brought out a capped pen from his pocket and stooped over onto the ground and started to carve out lines on the dry dust.

“What are you doing?” said Poy.

The priest stopped drawing and looked up. “What do you see?” he said.

Poy tilted his head. “Why,” he said. “Well. A little fish.”

“Good,” the priest said. He drew another figure on the ground and then again looking up said, “Now?”

“A star,” Poy said.

“Good. And now?”

“A heart.”

“Good,” the priest said. He stood up and shook the soil off the pen and put it back in his pocket. “Here’s the thing. That was no fish. Nor star. Nor heart.”

“What?” said Poy.

“You heard me right. Those were mere lines I drew on the soil.” The priest swept his foot over the drawings on the earth, thereby erasing them. “It was but the brain that projected meaning into those lines.”

“Don’t be smart with me now, Father.”

“Listen. It’s how the good Lord had wired us to work. We combine different parts and turn them into something entirely different. Such that two curved crossing lines become a fish. Such that two dots and a line become a face.”

Poy scratched his head. “Now wait just a minute, Father,” he said. “Wait just a minute. Let me continue my story.”

“Alright. Go ahead.”

“So I call my wife and let her see what I see. I ask her what she thinks and she thinks the same. ‘Why it’s our Most Holy Mother,’ she says. ‘Come to visit us in our humble home.’ And then I say to her, ‘What do you think we should do?’ and she says we should very well keep it as it is. So I covered the bowl with a metal plate so that our rooster couldn’t touch it. And then here’s what happened Father.

“Two days later was the big cockfighting tournament. And all I had to enter was that lonely old Golgota — ”

“Golgota?” the priest said.

“My rooster.”

“You named your rooster … Forget it. Continue.”

“ — lonely old Golgota, and you know, I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe win one or two matches. Win fifty pesos, maybe. That fowl isn’t anything remarkable. It was simply the most I could afford. But would you believe it, Father — that day my rooster made it to the top. It won all its matches. All of them! I won two thousand five-hundred pesos that day. Two thousand five-hundred! That day I was at last able to buy my little Jhesebeth new shoes for school. And pretty ones too.”

“Congratulations.”

“Father, don’t you see?” Poy said, shaking his hands in front of his face frantically, exasperated. As though this so-called man of God had turned blind of heart to the marvelous workings of that very Being he had ordained his entire life to. “It was the work of the most Holy Mother. What else could it be?”

“A fluke.”

“A fluke?”

“A stroke of good luck.”

Poy threw his hands up. He looked at the priest, his jaw slack, his eyes wide. “I cannot believe I am hearing this,” said Poy. His voice was shrill. “Not from you, Father. Why. This is almost blasphemy. If I didn’t know you were a good man I’d have said I’ve got a blasphemer before my very eyes.”

“Wait wait wait,” said Fr. Perry. “A blasphemer?”

“What else to call a denier of the presence of the Lord?”

“I don’t deny His presence. I do deny a shallow naïve and all too human interpretation of His just works.”

“I cannot believe I am hearing this,” Poy said, placing his hands on his ears in a dramatic and baroque display of disbelief, his voice shriller yet. “From no less than a priest. A priest of the Lord! Even the very pharisees did not deny the miracles when they saw them.” And then he stopped. He put his hands down. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Maybe that’s it.”

“What?”

“Maybe it’s because you haven’t seen it yet. That’s it. You better come to my place, Father, and see it for yourself. Then you can make your judgement.”

“Wait,” the priest said. “Hold on. Granted it was a miracle — granted — what did you want me to do anyway?”

“Why, Father. It must be proclaimed. What else? The Lord has done great things for me. For my chicken. Other people must be made known about the glories I have received.”

“And?”

“The people won’t pay attention to a tricycle driver. But they certainly will pay attention to the parish priest.”

The priest shook his head. “I don’t like this at all,” he said. “Not at all.”

When Fr. Perry arrived the next morning there was a considerable crowd gathered around the plot of soil behind Poy’s shanty. Even from afar the priest already recognized some of his most frequent and pious parishioners — Manong Jhopet the jeepney driver in his unmistakable, perpetual garb of a sleeveless threadbare cottonshirt wrapped tightly on a potbelly which hung with a languid and almost lascivious ease over a pair of denim pants cut off slightly above the knees to adapt to the Philippine climate, a white facetowel hanging on his shoulder — Denber the vagrant, who seemed to be perpetually shirtless just as he was perpetually jobless (even in Sunday Mass in the church, even after the parish priest’s pleas, the only compromise they were ever to arrive at being that Denber could only stay outside during the Mass, in consideration of the spiritual and reverential ambience to be preserved within the house of the Lord on His very day of the week) who always seemed to be squatting in some corner of the ghetto with his hair slicked back and gleaming with the one-peso plastic packets of bubbly hairgel bought from the roadside store, not begging but only staring at nothing, stroking the few fine unshaved because forever stunted hairs on his chin — Aling Nenita, the plump and matronly owner of the lone store of the neighborhood, who despite this fact, despite all the sugary liters of 7Up and Sarsi and Mountain Dew poured into small plastic bags with flimsy plastic straws sold to thirsty jeepney drivers, despite all the sold packets of porkrinds and dried garlic corn and boxes of cheap cigarettes that tasted more like glue than tobacco, never seemed to get any richer because of her ever merciful and seemingly limitless dispensation of IOUs to her customers, borne out of some innate maternal instinct that stretched out not only to her eight children but to the entire neighborhood as well.

The rooster stood clucking in a small crude coop of chickenwire, some gathered around observing it, expectant of some new miraculous apparition or heavenly intervention from the fowl, interpreting every jerk of the neck and turn of the leg as perhaps a new blessed manifestation of some spirit that had taken over it. To the featherbrained dismay of the gamecock, some had even tried to stroke it by inserting fingers through the small squares formed by the metal wires of the cage, in the hope that some divine and curative flux or power would flow through to them.

“Well what do you think of it, Father?” Manong Jhopet asked as the parish priest stooped over the feedbowl that had remained untouched for five days.

“Sure did tell you, didn’t I,” said Poy.

“Why Popoy,” said Poy’s wife. “Show a little respect to Father.”

Fr. Perry scratched his chin. The now stale bits of dried corn and peas and raw rice did indeed form an eerie semblance to a feminine visage, the eyes and nosebridge and delicate lips peeking out of a wavy mantle. “Well,” said Fr. Perry. “It sure does look like a human face.”

“Not just,” said Poy, smiling a triumphant gaptooth grin.

“A woman’s face,” said Fr. Perry.

“Not just.”

“And,” said Fr. Perry. “If you turn your head a little slightly … and squint your eyes like so … it does look a little like the Blessed Virgin.” He heard several gasps around him.

“So it ,” said Aling Nenita. “It a miracle. Just like Fatima.”

“Just like Guadalupe,” said Poy’s wife.

“Here in the very backyard of who else but a tricycle driver,” said Denber. “God does indeed show his perpetual preference for the poor.”

Aling Nenita crossed herself feverishly several times. “I’ve always wanted to see a miracle,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl reading about it from the Gospels. Oh how wonderful of the Lord to have deigned to bless our humble neighborhood with his marvels.”

“And you sure did doubt it too,” said Poy, the smug grin plastered on his face now wide, almost derogatory. “Didn’t you, Father? What was that about Thomas? Blessed are those who have eyes and … wait. Blessed are those who believe …”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” said Aling Nenita. “Book of John.”

“Yes,” said Poy. “Yes. That’s it.”

“Now just you wait,” said Fr. Perry, wagging his finger at Poy. “I never said — not even imply nor hint nor insinuate — that this was a miracle — ” The people around him gasped and he stopped talking to look at them. They stared back at him with wide eyes. For a moment there was all silence save the irreverent and absurd clucking of the bird in the cage.

“But Father,” said Mang Jhopet. “What else could it be? If not … if not, as you say, a miracle?”

“A semblance,” said Fr. Perry. “A coincidental semblance. A funny and amusing eye trick. An optical illusion, even. Anything but a miracle.”

He started to hear the increasing buzz of frenetic outraged whimpering whispers among the people gathered around him now, not much different from water being brought to a steady boil. Poy looked up at the sky, the veins on his neck bulging out, his hands thrown at the sides and palms facing up as he seemed to engage in an outraged and exasperated messianic discourse with his heavenly father: “Will You find faith on this earth, when You return? Will You find even but a mustard seed of faith planted in these doubtfilled hearts of men? Or must You move mountains for this perverse generation to at last believe?”

“This priest doesn’t believe,” Fr. Perry heard someone murmur. “He doesn’t believe the miracle.”

“I don’t,” Fr. Perry said. “I don’t believe, I tell you. Because this is no miracle.”

“What then is your definition of a miracle?” Poy said, his eyes now wide and burning with a most feverish holy righteous anger. “What? What must we do for you to change the hardness of your heart, remove the scales from your eyes? Tell me. What?”

“Hold it,” said Denber. “I have an idea.” All turned to look at him. “Magicstar,” he said. “Pit him against Magicstar. Then we’ll see.”

“Magicstar?” said Fr. Perry.

Poy’s eyes grew wider. His mouth curled slowly into a grin almost maniacal, the bearing of a holy fool. “Why,” he said. “Of course. What better way to clear any remaining doubt?”

That early afternoon the harsh tropical sun burned fiercely over the numerous spectators (more than there had been in Poy’s backyard earlier on, as the word had gotten around not only of the miraculous rooster, but also of the young parish priest with no faith and hence unbelieving in the very God he proclaimed, which seemed to draw more curiosity from the otherwise lethargic and idle heathen) such that the men had started to remove their shirts and wrap it around their heads, such that the patch of earth cleared for the cockfight seemed to be surrounded by a curious congregation of restless and sweaty beerfed beefy bulges from a meatshop. In the center of the makeshift arena the arbiter, himself shirtless, had started walking around from corner to corner collecting bets, colorful wads of folded peso bills inserted between his fingers. Entrepreneurial vendors who’d taken advantage of the captive market to sell icewater and dirty icecream and stuffed porkbuns lurked behind the crowd, proclaiming their wares.

A silence overcame the crowd as a man came to the center of the pitch guiding a rooster by a string tied to its leg. It stood almost up to his hip. It walked — each muscular stride accompanied by a quick and powerful jerk of the neck — with a terrible and hideous cockiness and valor, its white and silver feathers glinting outrageously like some dazzling and mazy whorl. Resting above its big bladelike beak sat yellow eyes that twitched from man to man, possessed by an intelligent bloodhungry and almost demonic gaze. The spectators seemed to emit a collective gasp when it spread out its strange and powerful wings and thus tripled in size. “That’s no chicken,” said Fr. Perry. He squinted against the fierce sunlight. His roman collar was popped open and angry beads of sweat dappled his forehead.

“Ha,” said Denber, who stood beside him. “That’s what the officials thought too, after seeing him fight his first few matches. It was unfair, they said. A chickenfreak like that would have robbed gamecock owners of all their money.”

“I wouldn’t let myself go near that thing,” said Mang Jhopet. “Let alone any chicken of mine.”

“Weeelcome!” announced the arbiter. “Welcome to today’s match between Golgota and Magicstar. All bets in? … Alright. Please, place the gamecocks in the center.”

“Who’d you bet for, Father?” said Denber.

“Please,” said Fr. Perry. “I don’t gamble.”

“I’ve placed some good money in Golgota.”

“No,” said Poy, who’d just placed his rooster in the center of the arena and now taken a spot beside them, among the frontmost spectators of the fight. “No. Not in Golgota. In the Lord. For if the Lord is with us who can stand against us.”

“I stand corrected,” said Denber. “Amen.”

“Hallelujah,” said Mang Jhopet.

The arbiter squatted by the midline crudely drawn out on the dry dust with a bottle of babypowder. He held the two roosters by the scruff of the necks and held them apart at arm’s length, their legs scuffling in the air in a whir of yellow and their wings wimpling wildly, the feathers on their necks standing, burst into savage vermilion manes like exploded embers. If there was a great inequality in size — indeed, Golgota was but less than half the girth of Magicstar — there was none in ferocity, in will to kill.

The arbiter drew the two gamecocks together and at once a mutual feverish pecking ensued. He drew them apart. They were clucking at each other now — — a squawking frantic and bizarre, a sort of chicken duet of an unintelligible yet nonetheless belligerent war song. The arbiter drew them together one more time and pulled them apart, so that the roosters were now trembling, agitated, murderous — the same way one would stoke a flame so it would burn bigger, brighter.

At last, he let them loose. He stepped back.

The two combatants didn’t strike at each other right away. They moved in a circle, scuttling sideways like a pair of dancing crabs, evincing even the feeble birdbrain’s capacity for calculation.

Golgota leapt first. His wings flapped about him as he lunged with his beak. Magicstar jumped to meet him midair, the vast expanse of his wingspan casting a dominant and fearful shadow on his fowl foe, his feet clawed into vicious harpoons. At once all was a blur. The muddled whiz of the wings seemed to blend together into a soft dense dynamic cloud of plumes, the two birds almost indistinguishable in that senseless furor of flapping. From this obfuscate scramble of rooster started to fly out loose feathers that floated up into the air, suspended, faint and floaty, as though a cloud from the firmament had erupted and its heavenly cottonsoft fragments now drifted to the ground.

The crowd gasped. Golgota flopped limp and unmoving onto the dust. Magicstar landed and started to peck vigorously at his adversary as though what lay there was but an inert platter of corn. Small pools of fresh chicken blood specked the soil.

“Damn,” said Mang Jhopet.

“Hold on,” said Poy. He glanced sideways at the priest, his fists clenched at the side in an attempt to stifle his trembling. “It’s not over yet.”

The arbiter approached the two chickens and squatted down and grabbed them by the scruff of their necks. He drew them apart at arm’s length and placed them on their feet. “O praise be to the Almighty,” shouted Aling Nenita, her arms raised to the sky. To the cheers and whistles of the pious crowd their miracle bird was able to sustain itself aright and aclucking.

But not for long.

As though with a renewed lust for avian slaughter Magicstar at once pounced on Golgota and this time he would show no mercy. By the time he’d finished, the object of his furious pecking and jabbing was reduced to a bloodied corpse. The arbiter pulled the two chickens apart — on one hand he held the powerful, still-rushing, still-tussling, still-undefeated freak of a rooster — on the other, the vanquished miraculous relic, the once object of blind belief, its neck and legs now hanging limply like farm produce for a butcher. The frenzied throats of the crowd fell silent. Poy wouldn’t look at the priest.

After that match it did not take long for the crowd to disperse. Soon the arena was almost empty. Poy knelt on the ground in the center of the pitch, his head bowed to his chest, grieving in silence for his fallen rooster.

“Poor Poy,” said Aling Nenita. She and Fr. Perry stood from a distance, watching him. “All he wanted was a small miracle, after all.”

“All wanted,” said Fr. Perry. “He and you and I and all. Well. Poy’s a tough one. I’m sure he’ll come out of this a better man.” He looked at his watch and made to leave himself.

“Where are you headed?” she said.

“Got to get back to the parish,” he said, not looking back “It’s almost time for the afternoon mass.”

“Wait,” shouted Poy from behind him. “Wait, Father.”

Fr. Perry stopped and turned around. Poy walked briskly to the priest, dragging along the rooster by the legs, a trail of blood sprinkling on the soil like some lavish sacrificial offering.

“Please,” he said. “Come have dinner with us this evening, if you want, Father. After your mass.” He raised the chicken with a sheepish gesture. “I always thought Golgota would make a good tinola stew.”

Fr. Perry chuckled. “I’d be honored,” he said.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.